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The Status Civilization
by Robert Sheckley
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"Maybe," Barrent said.

"We have to hope for the best," Eylan said. "Are you with us?"

"Certainly," Barrent said. "I'd rather die on Earth than on Omega."

"The prison ship lands in six days," Eylan said. "During that time, we will give you the information we have about Earth. Part of it is memory reconstruction, part has been skrenned by the mutants, and the rest is logical constructs. It's all we have, and I think it gives a reasonably accurate picture of current conditions on Earth."

"How soon do we start?" Barrent asked.

"Right now," Eylan said.

* * * * *

Barrent received a general briefing on the physical make-up of Earth, its climate and major population centers. Then he was sent to Colonel Bray, formerly of the Earth Deep Space Establishment. Bray talked to him about the probable military strength of Earth as represented by the number of guardships around Omega and their apparent level of scientific development. He gave estimates of the size of the Earth forces, their probable divisions into land, sea, and space groups, their assumed level of efficiency. An aide, Captain Carell, lectured on special weapons, their probable types and ranges, their availability to the general Earth population. Another aide, Lieutenant Daoud, talked about detection devices, their probable locations, and how to avoid them.

Then Barrent was turned back to Eylan for political indoctrination. From him, Barrent learned that Earth was believed to be a dictatorship. He learned the methods of a dictatorship, its peculiar strengths and weaknesses, the role of the secret police, the use of terror, the problem of informers.

When Eylan was finished with him, Barrent went to a small, beady-eyed man who lectured on Earth's memory-destroying system. Using the premise that memory-destruction was regularly employed to render opposition ineffective, the man went on to construct the probable nature of an underground movement on Earth given those circumstances, and how Barrent might contact them, and what the underground's capabilities might be.

Finally he was given the full details of Group Two's plan for getting him on board the ship.

When Landing Day came, Barrent felt a definite sense of relief. He was heartily sick of day and night cramming. Any sort of action would seem an improvement.



Chapter Twenty-One

Barrent watched the huge prison ship maneuver into position and sink noiselessly to the ground. It gleamed dully in the afternoon sun, tangible proof of Earth's long reach and powerful grasp. A hatch opened, and a landing stage was let down. The prisoners, flanked by guards, marched down and assembled in the square.

As usual, most of the population of Tetrahyde had gathered to watch and cheer the disembarkation ceremony. Barrent moved through the crowd and stationed himself behind the ranks of prisoners and guards. He touched his pocket to make sure the needlebeam was still there. It had been made for him by Group Two fabricators, completely of plastic to escape any metals detector. The rest of his pockets were stuffed with equipment. He hoped he wouldn't have to use any of it.

The loudspeaker voice began to read off the prisoners' numbers, as it had when Barrent had disembarked. He listened, knees slightly bent, waiting for the beginning of the diversion.

The loudspeaker voice was coming to the end of the prisoner list. There were only ten left. Barrent edged forward. The voice droned on. Four prisoners left, three....

As the number of the last prisoner was announced, the diversion began. A black cloud of smoke darkened the pale sky, and Barrent knew that the Group had set fire to the empty barracks in Square A-2. He waited.

Then it came. There was a stupendous explosion, blasting through two rows of empty buildings. The shock wave was staggering. Even before debris began to fall, Barrent was running toward the ship.

The second and third explosions went off as he came into the ship's shadow. Quickly he stripped off his Omegan outer garments. Under them, he wore a facsimile of guard's uniform. Now he ran toward the landing stage.

The loudspeaker voice was calling loudly for order. The guards were still bewildered.

The fourth explosion threw Barrent to the ground. He got to his feet instantly and sprinted up the landing stage. He was inside the ship. Outside, he could hear the guard captain shouting orders. The guards were beginning to form into ranks, their weapons ready to use against the restive crowd. They were retreating to the ship in good order.

Barrent had no more time to listen. He was standing in a long, narrow corridor. He turned to the right and raced toward the bow of the ship. Far behind him, he could hear the heavy marching tread of the guards.

Now, he thought, the information he had been given about the ship had better be right, or the expedition was finished before it began.

He sprinted past rows of empty cells, and came to a door marked GUARD ASSEMBLY ROOM. A lighted green bulb above the door showed that the air system was on. He went by it, and came to another door. Barrent tried it now, and found it unlocked. Within was a room stacked high with spare engine parts. He entered and closed the door.

The guards marched down the corridor. Barrent could hear them talking as they entered the assembly room.

"What do you think started those explosions?"

"Who knows? Those prisoners are crazy, anyhow."

"They'd blow up the whole planet, if they could."

"Good riddance."

"Well, it didn't cause any damage. There was an explosion like that about fifteen years ago. Remember?"

"I wasn't here then."

"Well, it was worse than this. Two guards were killed, and maybe a hundred prisoners."

"What started it?"

"Don't know. These Omegans just enjoy blowing things up."

"Next thing you know, they'll be trying to blow us up."

"Not a chance. Not with the guardships up there."

"You think so? Well, I'll be glad to get back to the checkpoint."

"You said it. Be good to get off this ship and live a little."

"It isn't a bad life at the checkpoint, but I'd rather go back to Earth."

"Well, you can't have everything."

The last of the guards entered the assembly room and dogged the door shut. Barrent waited. After a while, he felt the ship vibrate. It was beginning its departure.

He had learned some valuable information. Apparently all or most of the guards got off at the checkpoint. Did that mean that another detachment of guards got on? Probably. And a checkpoint implied that the ship was searched for escaped prisoners. It was probably only a perfunctory search, since no prisoner had escaped in the history of Omega. Still, he would have to figure out a way of avoiding it.

But he would face that when the time came. Now he felt the vibration cease, and he knew that the ship had left the surface of Omega. He was aboard, unobserved, and the ship was on its way to Earth. So far, everything had gone according to plan.

* * * * *

For the next few hours, Barrent stayed in the storage room. He was feeling very tired, and his joints had begun to ache. The air in the small room had a sour, exhausted smell. Forcing himself to his feet, Barrent walked to the air vent and put his hand over it. No air was coming through. He took a small gauge out of his pocket. The oxygen content of the room was falling rapidly.

Cautiously he opened the storeroom door and peered out. Although he was dressed in a perfect replica of guard's uniform, he knew he couldn't pass among men who knew each other so well. He had to stay in hiding. And he had to have air.

The corridors were deserted. He passed the guard assembly room and heard faint murmurs of conversation inside. The green light glowed brightly over the door. Barrent walked on, beginning to feel the first signs of dizziness. His gauge showed him that the oxygen content in the corridor was starting to fall.

The Group had assumed that the air system would be used throughout the ship. Now Barrent could see that, with only guards and crew aboard, there was no need to supply air for the entire ship. There would be air in the little man-inhabited islands of the guardroom and the crew's section, and nowhere else.

Barrent hurried down the dim, silent corridors, gasping for breath. The air was rapidly growing bad. Perhaps it was being used in the assembly room before the ship's main air supply was touched.

He passed unlocked doors, but the green bulbs above them were unlighted. He had a pounding headache, and his legs felt as if they were turning to jelly. He tried to figure out a course of action.

The crew's section seemed to offer him the best chance. Ship's personnel might not be armed. Even if they were, they would be less ready for trouble than the guards. Perhaps he could hold one of the officers at gunpoint; perhaps he could take over the ship.

It was worth trying. It had to be tried.

At the end of the corridor he came to a staircase. He climbed past a dozen deserted levels, and came at last to a stenciled sign on one of the walls. It read CONTROL SECTION, and an arrow pointed the way. Barrent took the plastic needlebeam out of his pocket and staggered down the corridor. He was beginning to lose consciousness. Black shadows formed and dissipated on the edges of his vision. He was experiencing vague hallucinations, flashes of horror in which he felt the corridor walls falling in on him. He found that he was on his hands and knees, crawling toward a door marked CONTROL ROOM—No Admittance except to Ship's Officers.

* * * * *

The corridor seemed to be filled with gray fog. It cleared momentarily, and Barrent realized that his eyes were not focusing properly. He pulled himself to his feet and turned the door handle. It began to open. He took a firm grip on the needlebeam and tried to prepare himself for action.

But, as the door opened, darkness closed irrevocably around him. He thought he could see startled faces, hear a voice shouting, "Watch out! He's armed!" And then the blackness closed in completely, and he fell endlessly forward.



Chapter Twenty-Two

Barrent's return to consciousness was sudden and complete. He sat up and saw that he had fallen inside the control room. The metal door was closed behind him, and he was breathing without difficulty. He could see no sign of the crew. They must have gone after the guards, assuming he would stay unconscious.

He scrambled to his feet, instinctively picking up his needlebeam. He examined the weapon closely, then frowned and put it away. Why, he wondered, would the crew leave him alone in the control room, the most important part of the ship? Why would they leave him armed?

He tried to remember the faces he had seen just before he collapsed. They were indistinct memories, vague and unfocused figures with hollow, dreamlike voices. Had there really been people in here?

The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that he had conjured those people out of his fading consciousness. There had been no one here. He was alone in the ship's nerve center.

He approached the main control board. It was divided into ten stations. Each section had its rows of dials, whose slender indicators pointed to incomprehensible readings. Each had its switches, wheels rheostats, and levers.

Barrent walked slowly past the stations, watching the patterns of flashing lights that ran to the ceiling and rippled along the walls. The last station seemed to be some kind of overall control for the rest. A small screen was marked: Coordination, Manual/Automatic. The Automatic part was lighted. There were similar screens for navigation, lookout, collision control, subspace entry and exit, normal space entry and exit, and landing. All were automatic. Further on he found the programming screen, which clicked off the progress of the flight in hours, minutes, and seconds. Time to Checkpoint One was now 29 hours, 4 minutes, 51 seconds. Stop-over time, three hours. Time from Checkpoint to Earth, 480 hours.

The control board flashed and hummed to itself, serene and self-sufficient. Barrent couldn't help feeling that the presence of a human in this temple of the machine was sacrilege.

He checked the air ducts. They were set for automatic feed, giving just enough air to support the room's present human population of one.

But where was the crew? Barrent could understand the necessity of operating a starship largely on an automatic programming system. A structure as huge and complex as this had to be self-sufficient. But men had built it, and men had punched out the programs. Why weren't men present to monitor the switchboards, to modify the program when necessary? Suppose the guards had needed more time on Omega? Suppose it became necessary to by-pass the checkpoint and return directly to Earth? Suppose it was imperative to change destination altogether? Who reset the programs, who gave the ship its orders, who possessed the guiding intelligence that directed the entire operation?

Barrent looked around the control room. He found a storage bin filled with oxygen respirators. He put one on, tested it, and went into the corridor.

After a long walk, he reached a door marked CREW'S QUARTERS. Inside, the room was neat and bare. The beds stood in neat rows, without sheets or blankets. There were no clothes in the closets, no personal possessions of any kind. Barrent left and inspected the officers' and captain's quarters. He found no sign of recent human habitation.

He returned to the control room. It was apparent now that the ship had no crew. Perhaps the authorities on Earth felt so certain of their schedules and of the reliability of their ship that they had decided a crew was superfluous. Perhaps....

But it seemed to Barrent a reckless way of doing things. There was something very strange about an Earth that allowed starships to run without human supervision.

He decided to suspend further judgment until he had acquired more facts. For the time being, he had to think about the problems of his own survival. There was concentrated food in his pockets, but he hadn't been able to carry much water. Would the crewless ship have supplies? He had to remember the detachment of guards, down below in their assembly room. And he had to think about what was going to happen at the checkpoint, and what he would do about it.

Barrent found that he did not have to use his own food supplies. In the officers' mess, machines still dispensed food and drink at the push of a button. Barrent didn't know if these were natural or chemically reconstituted foods. They tasted fine and seemed to nourish him, so he really didn't care.

He explored part of the ship's upper levels. After becoming lost several times, he decided not to take any more unnecessary risks. The life-center of the ship was its control room, and Barrent spent most of his time there.

He found a viewport. Activating the switch that opened the shutters, Barrent was able to look out on the vast spectacle of stars glowing in the blackness of space. Stars without end stretched past the furthest limits of his imagination. Looking at this, Barrent felt a strong surge of pride. This was where he belonged, and those unknown stars were his heritage.

The time to the checkpoint dwindled to six hours. Barrent watched new portions of the control board come to life, checking and altering the forces governing the ship, preparing for a landing. Three and a half hours before landing, Barrent made an interesting discovery. He found the central communication system for the entire ship. By turning on the receiving end, he could overhear conversations in the guardroom.

He didn't learn much that was useful to him. Either through caution or lack of concern, the guards didn't discuss politics. Their lives were spent on the checkpoint, except for periods of service on the prison ship. Some of the things they said Barrent found incomprehensible. But he continued to listen, fascinated by anything these men of Earth had to say.

"You ever go swimming in Florida?"

"I never liked salt water."

"The year before I was called to the Guards, I won third prize at the Dayton Orchid Fair."

"I'm buying a retirement villa in Antarctica."

"How much longer for you?"

"Eighteen years."

"Well, someone's got to do it."

"But why me? And why no Earth leaves?"

"You've watched the tapes, you know why. Crime is a disease. It's infectious."

"So what?"

"So if you work around criminals, you run the danger of infection. You might contaminate someone on Earth."

"It isn't fair...."

"Can't be helped. Those scientists know what they're talking about. Besides, checkpoint's not so bad."

"If you like everything artificial ... air, flowers, food...."

"Well, you can't have everything. Your family there?"

"They want to get back Earthside."

"After five years on the checkpoint, they say you can't take Earth. The gravity gets you."

"I'll take gravity. Any time...."

From these conversations, Barrent learned that the grim-faced guards were human beings, just like the prisoners on Omega. Most of the guards didn't seem to like the work they were doing. Like Omegans, they longed for a return to Earth.

He stored the information away. The ship had reached the checkpoint, and the giant switchboard flashed and rippled, making its final adjustments for the intricacies of docking.

At last the maneuver was completed and the engines shut down to stand-by. Through the communications system, Barrent heard the guards leave their assembly room. He followed them down the corridors to the landing stage. He heard the last of them, as he left the ship, say, "Here comes the check squad. Whatcha say, boys?"

There was no answer. The guards were gone, and there was a new sound in the corridors: the heavy marching feet of what the guard called the check squad.

There seemed to be a lot of them. Their inspection began in the engine rooms, and moved methodically upward. From the sounds, they seemed to be opening every door on the ship and searching every room and closet.

Barrent held the needlebeam in his perspiring hand and wondered where, in all the territory of the ship, he could hide. He would have to assume that they were going to look everywhere. In that case, his best chance lay in evading them and hiding in a section of the ship already searched.

He slipped a respirator over his head and moved into the corridor.



Chapter Twenty-Three

Half an hour later, Barrent still hadn't figured out a way of getting past the check squad. They had finished inspecting the lower levels and were moving up to the control room deck. Barrent could hear them marching down the hallways. He kept on walking, a hundred yards in front, trying to find some way of hiding.

There should be a staircase at the end of this passageway. He could take it down to a different level, a part of the ship which had already been searched. He hurried on, wondering if he were wrong about the location of the staircase. He still had only the haziest idea of the layout of the ship. If he were wrong, he would be trapped.

He came to the end of the corridor, and the staircase was there. The footsteps behind him sounded closer. He started down, peering backwards over his shoulder.

And ran headfirst into a man's huge chest.

Barrent flung himself back, bringing his plastic gun to bear on the enormous figure. But he stopped himself from firing. The thing that stood in front of him was not human.

It stood nearly seven feet high, dressed in a black uniform with INSPECTION TEAM—ANDROID B212 stenciled on its front. Its face was a stylization of a human's, cleverly sculptured out of putty-colored plastic. Its eyes glowed a deep, impossible red. It swayed on two legs, balancing carefully, looking at Barrent, moving slowly toward him. Barrent backed away, wondering if a needlebeam could stop it.

He never had a chance to find out, for the android walked past him and continued up the stairs. Stenciled on the back of its uniform were the words RODENT CONTROL DIVISION. This particular android, Barrent realized, was programmed only to look for rats and mice. The presence of a stowaway had made no impression on it. Presumably the other androids were similarly specialized.

He stayed in an empty storage room on a lower level until he heard the sounds of the androids leaving. Then he hurried back to the control room. No guards came aboard. Exactly on schedule, the big ship left the checkpoint. Destination: Earth.

* * * * *

The rest of the journey was uneventful. Barrent slept and ate and, before the craft entered subspace, watched the endless spectacle of the stars through the viewport. He tried to visualize the planet he was coming to, but no pictures formed in his mind. What sort of a people built huge starships but failed to equip them with a crew? Why did they send out inspection teams, then give those teams the narrowest and most specialized sort of vision? Why did they have to deport a sizable portion of their population—and then fail to control the conditions under which the deportees lived and died? Why was it necessary for them to wipe the prisoners' minds clean of all memory of Earth?

Barrent couldn't think of any answers.

The control room clocks moved steadily on, counting off the minutes and hours of the trip. The ship entered, then emerged from subspace and went into deceleration orbit around a blue and green world which Barrent observed with mixed emotions. He found it hard to realize that he was returning at last to Earth.



Chapter Twenty-Four

The starship landed at noon on a brilliant sunlit day, somewhere on Earth's North American continent. Barrent had planned on waiting for darkness before leaving; but the control room screens flashed an ancient and ironic warning: All passengers and crew must disembark at once. Ship rigged for full decontamination procedure. Twenty minutes.

He didn't know what was meant by full decontamination procedure. But since the crew was emphatically ordered to leave, a respirator might not provide much safety. Of the two dangers, leaving the ship seemed the lesser.

The members of Group Two had given a good deal of thought to the clothing Barrent would wear upon debarkation. Those first minutes on Earth might be crucial. No cunning could help him if his clothing was obviously strange, outlandish, alien. Typical Earth clothing was the answer; but the Group wasn't sure what the citizens of Earth wore. One part of the Group had wanted Barrent to dress in their reconstructed approximation of civilian dress. Another part felt that the guard's uniform he had worn on board would see him through his arrival on Earth as well. Barrent himself had agreed with a third opinion, which felt that a mechanic's one-piece coverall would be least noticeable around a spacefield, and suffer the least change of style over the years. In the towns and cities, this disguise might put him at a disadvantage; but he had to meet one problem at a time.

He quickly stripped off his guard's uniform. Underneath he wore the lightweight coveralls. His needlebeam concealed, a collapsible lunchbox in his hand, Barrent walked down the corridor to the landing stage. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should leave the weapon on the ship. He decided not to part with it. An inspection would reveal him anyhow; with the needlebeam he would have a chance of breaking away from police.

He took a deep breath and marched out of the ship and down the landing stage.

There were no guards, no inspection party, no police, no army units and no customs officials. There was no one at all. Far to one side of the wide field he could see rows of starcraft glistening in the sun. Straight ahead of him was a fence, and in it was an open gate.

Barrent walked across the field, quickly but without obvious haste. He had no idea why it was all so simple. Perhaps the secret police on Earth had more subtle means of checking on passengers from starships.

He reached the gate. There was no one there except a bald, middle-aged man and a boy of perhaps ten. They seemed to be waiting for him. Barrent found it hard to believe that these were government officials; still, who knew the ways of Earth? He passed through the gate.

The bald man, holding the boy by the hand, walked over to him. "I beg your pardon," the man said.

"Yes?"

"I saw you come from the starship. Would you mind if I ask you a few questions?"

"Not at all," Barrent said, his hand near the coverall zipper beneath which lay his needlebeam. He was certain now that the bald man was a police agent. The only thing that didn't make sense was the presence of the child, unless the boy was an agent-in-training.

"The fact of the matter is," the man said, "my boy Ronny here is doing a thesis for his Tenth Grade Master's Degree. On starships."

"So I wanted to see one," Ronny said. He was an undersized child with a pinched, intelligent face.

"He wanted to see one," the man explained. "I told him it wasn't necessary, since all the facts and pictures are in the encyclopedia. But he wanted to see one."

"It gives me a good opening paragraph," Ronny said.

"Of course," Barrent said, nodding vigorously. He was beginning to wonder about the man. For a member of the secret police, he was certainly taking a devious route.

"You work on the ships?" Ronny asked.

"That's right."

"How fast do they go?"

"In real or subspace?" Barrent asked.

This question seemed to throw Ronny off his stride. He pushed out his lower lip and said, "Gee, I didn't know they went in subspace." He thought for a moment. "As a matter of fact, I don't think I know what subspace is."

Barrent and the boy's father smiled understandingly.

"Well," Ronny said, "how fast do they go in real space?"

"A hundred thousand miles an hour," Barrent said, naming the first figure that came into his head.

The boy nodded, and his father nodded. "Very fast," the father said.

"And much faster in subspace of course," Barrent said.

"Of course," the man said. "Starships are very fast indeed. They have to be. Quite long distances involved. Isn't that right, sir?"

"Very long distances," Barrent said.

"How is the ship powered?" Ronny asked.

"In the usual way," Barrent told him. "We had triplex boosters installed last year, but that comes more under the classification of auxiliary power."

"I've heard about those triplex boosters," the man said. "Tremendous things."

"They're adequate," Barrent said judiciously. He was certain now that this man was just what he purported to be: a citizen with no particular knowledge of spacecraft simply bringing his son to the starport.

"How do you get enough air?" Ronny asked.

"We generate our own," Barrent said. "But air isn't any trouble. Water's the big problem. Water isn't compressible, you know. It's hard to store in sufficient quantities. And then there's the navigation problem when the ship emerges from subspace."

"What is subspace?" Ronny asked.

"In effect," Barrent said, "it's simply a different level of real space. But you can find all that in your encyclopedia."

"Of course you can, Ronny," the boy's father said. "We mustn't keep the pilot standing here. I'm sure he has many important things to do."

"I am rather rushed," Barrent said. "Look around all you want. Good luck on your thesis, Ronny."

Barrent walked for fifty yards, his spine tingling, expecting momentarily to feel the blow of a needlebeam or a shotgun. But when he looked back, the father and son were turned away from him, earnestly studying the great vessel. Barrent hesitated a moment, deeply bothered. So far, the whole thing had been entirely too easy. Suspiciously easy. But there was nothing he could do but go on.

The road from the starport led past a row of storage sheds to a section of woods. Barrent walked until he was out of sight. Then he left the road and went into the woods. He had had enough contact with people for his first day on Earth. He didn't want to stretch his luck. He wanted to think things over, sleep in the woods for the night, and then in the morning go to a city or town.

He pushed his way past dense underbrush into the forest proper. Here he walked through shaded groves of giant oaks. All around him was the chirp and bustle of unseen bird and animal life. Far in front of him was a large white sign nailed to a tree. Barrent reached it, and read: FORESTDALE NATIONAL PARK. PICNICKERS AND CAMPERS WELCOME.

Barrent was a little disappointed, even though he realized that there would be no virgin wilderness so near a starport. In fact, on a planet as old and as highly developed as Earth, there was probably no virgin land at all, except what had been preserved in national forests.

The sun was low on the horizon, and there was a chill in the long shadows thrown across the forest floor. Barrent found a comfortable spot under a gigantic oak, arranged leaves for a bed, and lay down. He had a great deal to think about. Why, for example, hadn't guards been posted at Earth's most important contact point, an interstellar terminus? Did security measures start later at the towns and cities? Or was he already under some sort of surveillance, some infinitely subtle spy system that followed his every movement and apprehended him only when ready? Or was that too fanciful? Could it be that—?

"Good evening," a voice said, close to his right ear.

Barrent flung himself away from the voice in a spasm of nervous reaction, his hand diving for his needlebeam.

"And a very pleasant evening it is," the voice continued, "here in Forestdale National Park. The temperature is seventy-eight point two degrees Fahrenheit, humidity 23 per cent, barometer steady at twenty-nine point nine. Old campers, I'm sure, already recognize my voice. For the new nature-lovers among you, let me introduce myself. I am Oaky, your friendly oak tree. I'd like to welcome all of you, old and new, to your friendly national forest."

Sitting upright in the gathering darkness, Barrent peered around, wondering what kind of a trick this was. The voice really did seem to come from the giant oak tree.

"The enjoyment of nature," said Oaky, "is now easy and convenient for everyone. You can enjoy complete seclusion and still be no more than a ten-minute walk from public transportation. For those who do not desire seclusion, we have guided tours at nominal cost through these ancient glades. Remember to tell your friends about your friendly national park. The full facilities of this park are waiting for all lovers of the great outdoors."

A panel in the tree opened. Out slid a bedroll, a Thermos bottle, and a box supper.

"I wish you a pleasant evening," said Oaky, "amid the wild splendor of nature's wonderland. And now the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Otter Krug brings you 'The Upland Glades,' by Ernesto Nestrichala, recorded by the National North American Broadcasting Company. This is your friendly oak tree signing off."

Music emanated from several hidden speakers. Barrent scratched his head; then, deciding to take matters as they came, he ate the food, drank coffee from the Thermos, unrolled the bedroll, and lay down.

Sleepily he contemplated the notion of a forest wired for sound, equipped with food and drink, and none of it more than ten minutes from public transportation. Earth certainly did a lot for her citizens. Presumably they liked this sort of thing. Or did they? Could this be some huge and subtle trap which the authorities had set for him?

He tossed and turned for a while, trying to get used to the music. After a while it blended into the background of windblown leaves and creaking branches. Barrent went to sleep.



Chapter Twenty-Five

In the morning, the friendly oak tree dispensed breakfast and shaving equipment. Barrent ate, washed and shaved, and set out for the nearest town. He had his objectives firmly in mind. He had to establish some sort of foolproof disguise, and he had to make contact with Earth's underground. When this was accomplished, he had to find out as much as he could about Earth's secret police, military dispositions, and the like.

Group Two had worked out a procedure for accomplishing these objectives. As Barrent came to the outskirts of a town, he hoped that the Group's methods would work. So far, the Earth he was on had very little resemblance to the Earth which the Group had reconstructed.

He walked down interminable streets lined with small white cottages. At first, he thought every house looked the same. Then he realized that each had one or two small architectural differences. But instead of distinguishing the houses, these niggling differences simply served to point up the monotonous similarities. There were hundreds of these cottages, stretching as far as he could see, each of them set upon a little plot of carefully tended grass. Their genteel sameness depressed him. Unexpectedly he missed the ridiculous, clumsy, make-shift individuality of Omegan buildings.

He reached a shopping center. The stores repeated the pattern set by the houses. They were low, discreet, and very similar. Only a close inspection of window displays revealed differences between a food store and a sports shop. He passed a small building with a sign that read, ROBOT CONFESSIONAL—Open 24 hours a day. It seemed to be some sort of church.

The procedure set by Group Two for locating the underground on Earth was simple and straightforward. Revolutionaries, he had been told, are found in greatest quantity among a civilization's most depressed elements. Poverty breeds dissatisfaction; the have-nots want to take from those who have. Therefore, the logical place to look for subversion is in the slums.

It was a good theory. The trouble was, Barrent couldn't find any slums. He walked for hours, past neat stores and pleasant little homes, playgrounds and parks, scrupulously tended farms, and then past more houses and stores. Nothing looked much better or worse than anything else.

By evening, he was tired and footsore. As far as he could tell, he had discovered nothing of significance. Before he could penetrate any deeper into the complexities of Earth, he would have to question the local citizens. It was a dangerous step, but one which he could not avoid.

He stood near a clothing store in the gathering dusk and decided upon a course of action. He would pose as a foreigner, a man newly arrived in North America from Asia or Europe. In that way, he should be able to ask questions with a measure of safety.

A man was walking toward him, a plump, ordinary-looking fellow in a brown business tunic. Barrent stopped him. "I beg your pardon," he said. "I'm a stranger here, just arrived from Rome."

"Really?" the man said.

"Yes. I'm afraid I don't understand things over here very well," Barrent said, with an apologetic little laugh. "I can't seem to find any cheap hotels. If you could direct me—"

"Citizen, do you feel all right?" the man asked, his face hardening.

"As I said, I'm a foreigner, and I'm looking—"

"Now look," the man said, "you know as well as I do that there aren't any outlanders any more."

"There aren't?"

"Of course not. I've been in Rome. It's just like here in Wilmington. Same sort of houses and stores. No one's an outlander any more."

Barrent couldn't think of anything to say. He smiled nervously.

"Furthermore," the man said, "there are no cheap lodgings anywhere on Earth. Why should there be? Who would stay in them?"

"Who indeed?" Barrent said. "I guess I've had a little too much to drink."

"No one drinks any more," the man said. "I don't understand. What sort of a game is this?"

"What sort of a game do you think it is?" Barrent asked, falling back on a technique which the Group had recommended.

The man stared at him, frowning. "I think I get it," he said. "You must be an Opinioner."

"Mmm," Barrent said, noncommittally.

"Sure, that's it," the man said. "You're one of those citizens goes around asking people's opinions. For surveys and that sort of thing. Right?"

"You've made a very intelligent guess," Barrent said.

"Well, I don't suppose it was too hard. Opinioners are always walking around trying to get people's attitudes on things. I would have spotted you right away if you'd been wearing Opinioners' clothing." The man started to frown again. "How come you aren't dressed like an Opinioner?"

"I just graduated," Barrent said. "Haven't had a chance to get the clothes."

"Oh. Well, you should get the proper wear," the man said sententiously. "How can a citizen tell your status?"

"Just a test sampling," Barrent said. "Thank you for your cooperation, sir. Perhaps I'll have a chance to interview you again in the near future."

"Any time," the man said. He nodded politely and walked off.

Barrent thought about it, and decided that the occupation of Opinioner was perfect for him. It would give him the all-important right to ask questions, to meet people, to find out how Earth lived. He would have to be careful, of course, not to reveal his ignorance. But working with circumspection, he should have a general knowledge of this civilization in a few days.

First, he would have to buy Opinioners' clothing. That seemed to be important. The trouble was, he had no money with which to pay for it. The Group had been unable to duplicate Earth money; they couldn't even remember what it looked like.

But they had provided him with a means of overcoming even that obstacle. Barrent turned and went into the nearest costumer's.

The proprietor was a short man with china-blue eyes and a salesman's ready smile. He welcomed Barrent and asked how he could be of service.

"I need Opinioners' clothing," Barrent told him. "I've just graduated."

"Of course, sir," the owner said. "And you've come to the right place for it. Most of the smaller stores don't carry the clothing for anything but the more ... ah ... common professions. But here at Jules Wonderson's, we have ready-wears for all of the five hundred and twenty major professions listed in the Civil Status Almanac. I am Jules Wonderson."

"A pleasure," Barrent said. "Have you a ready-wear in my size?"

"I'm sure I have," Wonderson said. "Would you care for a Regular or a Special?"

"A Regular will do nicely."

"Most new Opinioners prefer the Special," Wonderson said. "The little extra simulated handmade touches increase the public's respect."

"In that case I'll take the Special."

"Yes, sir. Though if you could wait a day or two, we will be having in a new fabric—a simulated Home Loom, complete with natural weaving mistakes. For the man of status discrimination. A real prestige item."

"Perhaps I'll come back for that," Barrent said. "Right now, I need a ready-wear."

"Of course, sir," Wonderson said, disappointed but hiding it bravely. "If you'll wait just one little minute...."

After several fittings, Barrent found himself wearing a black business suit with a thin edge of white piping around the lapels. To his inexperienced eye it looked almost exactly like the other suits Wonderson had on display for bankers, stock brokers, grocers, accountants, and the like. But for Wonderson, who talked about the banker's lapel and the insurance agent's drape, the differences were as clear as the gross status-symbols of Omega. Barrent decided it was just a question of training.

"There, sir!" Wonderson said. "A perfect fit, and a fabric guaranteed for a lifetime. All for thirty-nine ninety-five."

"Excellent," Barrent said. "Now, about the money—"

"Yes, sir?"

Barrent took the plunge. "I haven't any."

"You haven't, sir? That's quite unusual."

"Yes, it is," Barrent said. "However, I do have certain articles of value." From his pocket he took three diamond rings with which the Group on Omega had supplied him. "These stones are genuine diamonds, as any jeweler will be glad to attest. If you would take one of them until I have the money for payment—"

"But, sir," Wonderson said, "diamonds and such have no intrinsic value. They haven't since '23, when Von Blon wrote the definitive work destroying the concept of scarcity value."

"Of course," Barrent said, at a loss for words.

Wonderson looked at the rings. "I suppose these have a sentimental value, though."

"Certainly. We've had them in the family for generations."

"In that case," Wonderson said, "I wouldn't want to deprive you of them. Please, no arguments, sir! Sentiment is the most priceless of emotions. I couldn't sleep nights if I took even one of these family heirlooms from you."

"But there's the matter of payment."

"Pay me at your leisure."

"You mean you'll trust me, even though you don't know me?"

"Most certainly," Wonderson said. He smiled archly. "Trying out your Opinioner's methods, aren't you? Well, even a child knows that our civilization is based upon trust, not collateral. It is axiomatic that even a stranger is to be trusted until he has conclusively and unmistakably proven otherwise."

"Haven't you ever been cheated?"

"Of course not. Crime is nonexistent these days."

"In that case," Barrent asked, "what about Omega?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Omega, the prison planet. You must have heard of it."

"I think I have," Wonderson said cautiously. "Well, I should have said that crime is almost nonexistent. I suppose there will always be a few congenital criminal types, easily recognizable as such. But I'm told they don't amount to more than ten or twelve individuals a year out of a population of nearly two billion." He smiled broadly. "My chances of meeting one are exceedingly rare."

Barrent thought about the prison ships constantly shuttling back and forth between Earth and Omega, dumping their human cargo and returning for more. He wondered where Wonderson got his statistics. For that matter, he wondered where the police were. He had seen no military uniform since leaving the starship. He would have liked to ask about it, but it seemed wiser to discontinue that line of questioning.

"Thank you very much for the credit," Barrent said. "I'll be back with the payment as soon as possible."

"Of course you will," Wonderson said, warmly shaking Barrent's hand. "Take your time, sir. No rush at all."

Barrent thanked him again and left the store.

He had a profession now. And if other people believed as Wonderson did, he had unlimited credit. He was on a planet that seemed, at first glance, to be a utopia. The utopia presented certain contradictions, of course. He hoped to find out more about them over the next few days.

Down the block, Barrent found a hotel called The Bide-A-Bit. He engaged a room for the week, on credit.



Chapter Twenty-Six

In the morning, Barrent asked directions to the nearest branch of the public library. He decided that he needed as much background out of books as he could get. With a knowledge of the history and development of Earth's civilization, he would have a better idea of what to expect and what to watch out for.

His Opinioner's clothing allowed him access to the closed shelves where the history books were kept. But the books themselves were disappointing. Most of them were Earth's ancient history, from earliest beginnings to the dawn of atomic power. Barrent skimmed through them. As he read, some memories of prior reading returned to him. He was able to jump quickly from Periclean Greece to Imperial Rome, to Charlemagne and the Dark Ages, from the Norman Conquest to the Thirty Years' War, and then to a rapid survey of the Napoleonic Era. He read with more care about the World Wars. The book ended with the explosion of the first atom bombs. The other books on the shelf were simply amplifications of various stages of history he had found in the first book.

After a great deal of searching, Barrent found a small work entitled, "The Postwar Dilemma, Volume 1," by Arthur Whittler. It began where the other histories had left off; with the atomic bombs exploding over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Barrent sat down and began to read carefully.

He learned about the Cold War of the 1950's, when several nations were in possession of atomic and hydrogen weapons. Already, the author stated, the seeds of a massive and stultifying conformity were present in the nations of the world. In America, there was the frenzied resistance to communism. In Russia and China, there was the frenzied resistance to capitalism. One by one, all the nations of the world were drawn into one camp or the other. For purposes of internal security, all countries relied upon the newest propaganda and indoctrination techniques. All countries felt they needed, for survival's sake, a rigid adherence to state-approved doctrines.

The pressure upon the individual to conform became both stronger and subtler.

The dangers of war passed. The many societies of Earth began to merge into a single superstate. But the pressure to conform, instead of lessening, grew more intense. The need was dictated by the continued explosive increase in population, and the many problems of unification across national and ethnic lines. Differences in opinion could be deadly; too many groups now had access to the supremely deadly hydrogen bombs.

Under the circumstances, deviant behavior could not be tolerated.

Unification was finally completed. The conquest of space went on, from moon ship to planet ship to star ship. But Earth became increasingly rigid in its institutions. A civilization more inflexible than anything produced by medieval Europe punished any opposition to existing customs, habits, beliefs. These breaches of the social contract were considered major crimes as serious as murder or arson. They were punished similarly. The antique institutions of secret police, political police, informers, all were used. Every possible device was brought to bear toward the all-important goal of conformity.

For the nonconformists, there was Omega.

Capital punishment had been banished long before, but there was neither room nor resources to take the growing number of criminals who crammed prisons everywhere. The world leaders finally decided to transport these criminals to a separate prison world, copying a system which the French had used in Guiana and New Caledonia, and the British had used in Australia and early North America. Since it was impossible to rule Omega from Earth, the authorities didn't try. They simply made sure that none of the prisoners escaped.

That was the end of volume one. A note at the end said that volume two was to be a study of contemporary Earth. It was entitled The Status Civilization.

The second volume was not on the shelves. Barrent asked the librarian, and was told that it had been destroyed in the interests of public safety.

Barrent left the library and went to a little park. He sat and stared at the ground and tried to think.

He had expected to find an Earth similar to the one described in Whittler's book. He had been prepared for a police state, tight security controls, a repressed populace, and a growing air of unrest. But that, apparently, was the past. So far, he hadn't even seen a policeman. He had observed no security controls, and the people he had met did not seem harshly repressed. Quite the contrary. This seemed like a completely different world....

Except that year after year, the ships came to Omega with their cargoes of brainwashed prisoners. Who arrested them? Who judged them? What sort of a society produced them?

He would have to find out the answers himself.



Chapter Twenty-Seven

Early the next morning, Barrent began his exploration. His technique was simple. He rang doorbells and asked questions. He warned all his subjects that his real questions might be interspersed with tricks or nonsense questions, whose purpose was to test the general awareness level. In that way, Barrent found he could ask anything at all about Earth, could explore controversial or even nonexistent areas, and do so without revealing his own ignorance.

There was still the danger that some official would ask for his credentials, or that the police would mysteriously spring up when least expected. But he had to take those risks. Starting at the beginning of Orange Esplanade, Barrent worked his way northward, calling at each house as he went. His results were uneven, as a selective sampling of his work shows:

* * * * *

(Citizen A. L. Gotthreid, age 55, occupation home-tender. A strong, erect woman, imperious but polite, with a no-nonsense air about her.)

"You want to ask me about class and status? Is that it?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"You Opinioners are always asking about class and status. One would think you'd know all about it by now. But very well. Today, since everyone is equal, there is only one class. The middle class. The only question then is—to what portion of the middle class does one belong? High, low, or middle?"

"And how is that determined?"

"Why, by all sorts of things. The way a person speaks, eats, dresses, the way he acts in public. His manners. His clothing. You can always tell your upper middle class man by his clothes. It's quite unmistakable."

"I see. And the lower middle classes?"

"Well, for one thing they lack creative energy. They wear ready-made clothing, for example, without taking the trouble to improve upon it. The same goes for their homes. Mere uninspired adornment won't do, let me add. That's simply the mark of the nouveau upper middle class. One doesn't receive such persons in the home."

"Thank you, Citizen Gotthreid. And where would you classify yourself statuswise?"

(With the very faintest hesitation). "Oh, I've never thought much about it—upper middle, I suppose."

* * * * *

(Citizen Dreister, age 43, occupation shoe vendor. A slender, mild man, young-looking for his years.)

"Yes, sir. Myra and I have three children of school age. All boys."

"Could you give me some idea what their education consists of?"

"They learn how to read and write, and how to become good citizens. They're already starting to learn their trades. The oldest is going into the family business—shoes. The other two are taking apprenticeship courses in groceries and retail marketing. That's my wife's family's business. They also learn how to retain status, and how to utilize standard techniques for moving upward. That's about what goes on in the open classes."

"Are there other school classes which are not open?"

"Well, naturally there are the closed classes. Every child attends them."

"And what do they learn in the closed classes?"

"I don't know. They're closed, as I said."

"Don't the children ever speak about those classes?"

"No. They talk about everything under the sun, but not about that."

"Haven't you any idea what goes on in the closed classes?"

"Sorry, I don't. At a guess—and it's only a guess, mind you—I'd say it's probably something religious. But you'd have to ask a teacher for that."

"Thank you, sir. And how do you classify yourself statuswise?"

"Middle middle class. Not much doubt about that."

* * * * *

(Citizen Maryjane Morgan, age 51, occupation school-teacher. A tall, bony woman.)

"Yes, sir, I think that just about sums up our curriculum at the Little Beige Schoolhouse."

"Except for the closed classes."

"I beg your pardon, sir?"

"The closed classes. You haven't discussed those."

"I'm afraid I can't."

"Why not, Citizen Morgan?"

"Is this a trick question? Everyone knows that teachers aren't allowed in the closed classes."

"Who is allowed in?"

"The children, of course."

"But who teaches them?"

"The government is in charge of that."

"Of course. But who, specifically, does the teaching in the closed classes?"

"I have no idea, sir. It's none of my business. The closed classes are an ancient and respected institution. What goes on in them is quite possibly of a religious nature. But that's only a guess. Whatever it is, it's none of my business. Nor is it yours, young man, Opinioner or not."

"Thank you, Citizen Morgan."

* * * * *

(Citizen Edgar Nief, age 107, occupation retired officer. A tall, stooped man with cane, icy blue eyes undimmed by age.)

"A little louder, please. What was that question again?"

"About the armed forces. Specifically I asked—"

"I remember now. Yes, young man, I was a colonel in the Twenty-first North American Spaceborne Commando, which was a regular unit of the Earth Defense Corps."

"And did you retire from the service?"

"No, the service retired from me."

"I beg pardon, sir?"

"You heard me correctly, young man. It happened just sixty-three years ago. The Earth Armed Forces were demobilized, except for the police whom I cannot count. But all regular units were demobilized."

"Why was that done, sir?"

"There wasn't anyone to fight. Wasn't even anyone to guard against, or so I was told. Damned foolish business, I say."

"Why, sir?"

"Because an old soldier knows that you can never tell when an enemy might spring up. It could happen now. And then where would we be?"

"Couldn't the armies be formed again?"

"Certainly. But the present generation has no concept of serving under arms. There are no leaders left, outside of a few useless old fools like me. It would take years for an effective force, effectively led, to be formed."

"And in the meantime, Earth is completely open to invasion from the outside?"

"Yes, except for the police units. And I seriously doubt their reliability under fire."

"Could you tell me about the police?"

"There is nothing I know about them. I have never bothered my head about non-military matters."

"But it is conceivable that the police have now taken over the functions of the army, isn't it? That the police constitute a sizable and disciplined paramilitary force?"

"It is possible, sir. Anything is possible."

* * * * *

(Citizen Moertin Honners, age 31, occupation verbalizer. A slim, languid man with an earnest, boyish face and smooth, corn-blond hair.)

"You are a verbalizer, Citizen Honners?"

"I am, sir. Though perhaps 'author' would be a better word, if you don't mind."

"Of course. Citizen Honners, are you presently engaged in writing for any of the periodicals I see on the dissemination stands?"

"Certainly not! These are written by incompetent hacks for the dubious delectation of the lower middle class. The stories, in case you didn't know, are taken line by line from the works of various popular writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The people who do the work merely substitute adjectives and adverbs. Occasionally, I'm told, a more daring hack will substitute a verb, or even a noun. But that is rare. The editors of such periodicals frown upon sweeping innovations."

"And you are not engaged in such work?"

"Absolutely not! My work is noncommercial. I am a Creative Conrad Specialist."

"Would you mind telling me what that means, Citizen Honners?"

"I'd be happy to. My own particular field of endeavor lies in re-creating the works of Joseph Conrad, an author who lived in the pre-atomic era."

"How do you go about re-creating those works, sir?"

"Well, at present I am engaged in my fifth re-creation of Lord Jim. To do it, I steep myself as thoroughly as possible in the original work. Then I set about rewriting it as Conrad would have written it if he had lived today. It is a labor which calls for extreme diligence, and for the utmost in artistic integrity. A single slip could mar the re-creation. As you can see, it calls for a preliminary mastery of Conrad's vocabulary, themes, plots, characters, mood, approach, and so on. All this goes in, and yet the book cannot be a slavish repeat. It must have something new to say, just as Conrad would have said it."

"And have you succeeded?"

"The critics have been generous, and my publisher gives me every encouragement."

"When you have finished your fifth re-creation of Lord Jim, what do you plan to do?"

"First I shall take a long rest. Then I shall re-create one of Conrad's minor works. The Planter of Malata, perhaps."

"I see. Is re-creation the rule in all the arts?"

"It is the goal of the true aspiring artist, no matter what medium he has chosen to work in. Art is a cruel mistress, I fear."

* * * * *

(Citizen Willis Ouerka, age 8, occupation student. A cheerful, black-haired, sun-tanned boy.)

"I'm sorry, Mr. Opinioner, my parents aren't home right now."

"That's perfectly all right, Willis. Do you mind if I ask you a question or two?"

"I don't mind. What's that you got under your jacket, Mister? It bulges."

"I'll ask the questions, Willis, if you don't mind.... Now, do you like school?"

"It's all right."

"What courses do you take?"

"Well, there's reading and writing and status appreciation, and courses in art, music, architecture, literature, ballet, and theater. The usual stuff."

"I see. That's in the open classes?"

"Sure."

"Do you also attend a closed class?"

"Sure I do. Every day."

"Do you mind talking about it?"

"I don't mind. Is that bulge a gun? I know what guns are. Some of the big boys were passing around pictures at lunchtime a couple days ago and I peeked. Is it a gun?"

"No. My suit doesn't fit very well, that's all. Now then. Would you mind telling me what you do in the closed class?"

"I don't mind."

"What happens, then?"

"I don't remember."

"Come now, Willis."

"Really, Mr. Opinioner. We all go into this classroom, and we come out two hours later for recess. But that's all. I can't remember anything else. I've talked with the other kids. They can't remember either."

"Strange...."

"No, sir. If we were supposed to remember, it wouldn't be closed."

"Perhaps so. Do you remember what the room looks like, or who your teacher is for the closed class?"

"No, sir. I really don't remember anything at all about it."

"Thank you. Willis."

* * * * *

(Citizen Cuchulain Dent, age 37, occupation inventor. A prematurely bald man with ironic, heavy-lidded eyes.)

"Yep, that's right. I'm an inventor specializing in games. I brought out Triangulate—Or Else! last year. It's been pretty popular. Have you seen it?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Sort of a cute game. It's a simulated lost-in-space thing. The players are given incomplete data for their miniature computers, additional information as they win it. Space hazards for penalties. Lots of flashing lights and stuff like that. Very big seller."

"Do you invent anything else, Citizen Dent?"

"When I was a kid, I worked up an improved seeder harvester. Designed to be approximately three times as efficient as the present models. And would you believe it, I really thought I had a chance of selling it."

"Did you sell it?"

"Of course not. At that time I didn't realize that the patent office was closed permanently except for the games section."

"Were you angry about that?"

"A little angry at the time. But I soon realized that the models we have are plenty good enough. There's no need for more efficient or more ingenious inventions. Folks today are satisfied with what they've got. Besides, new inventions would be of no service to mankind. Earth's birth and death rate are stable, and there's enough for everyone. To produce a new invention, you'd have to retool an entire factory. That would be almost impossible, since all the factories today are automatic and self-repairing. That's why there's a moratorium on invention, except in the novelty game field."

"How do you feel about it?"

"What's there to feel? That's how things are."

"Would you like to have things different?"

"Maybe. But being an inventor, I'm classified as a potentially unstable character anyhow."

* * * * *

(Citizen Barn Threnten, age 41, occupation atomics engineer specializing in spacecraft design. A nervous, intelligent-looking man with sad brown eyes.)

"You want to know what I do in my job? I'm sorry you asked that, Citizen, because I don't do a thing except walk around the factory. Union rules require one stand-by human for every robot or robotized operation. That's what I do. I just stand by."

"You sound dissatisfied, Citizen Threnten."

"I am. I wanted to be an atomics engineer. I trained for it. Then when I graduated, I found out my knowledge was fifty years out of date. Even if I learned what was going on now, I'd have no place to use it."

"Why not?"

"Because everything in atomics is automatized. I don't know if the majority of the population knows that, but it's true. From raw material to finished product, it's all completely automatic. The only human participation in the program is quantity-control in terms of population indexes. And even that is minimal."

"What happens if a part of an automatic factory breaks down?"

"It gets fixed by robot repair units."

"And if they break down?"

"The damned things are self-repairing. All I can do is stand by and watch, and fill out a report. Which is a ridiculous position for a man who considers himself an engineer."

"Why don't you turn to some other field?"

"No use. I've checked, and the rest of the engineers are in the same position I'm in, watching automatic processes which they don't understand. Name your field: food processing, automobile manufacture, construction, biochem., it's all the same. Either stand-by engineers or no engineers at all."

"This is true for spaceflight also?"

"Sure. No member of the spacepilot's union has been off Earth for close to fifty years. They wouldn't know how to operate a ship."

"I see. All the ships are set for automatic."

"Exactly. Permanently and irrevocably automatic."

"What would happen if these ships ran into an unprecedented situation?"

"That's hard to say. The ships can't think, you know; they simply follow pre-set programs. If the ships ran into a situation for which they were not programmed, they'd be paralyzed, at least temporarily. I think they have an optimum-choice selector which is supposed to take over unstructured situations; but it's never been tried out. At best, it would react sluggishly. At worst, it wouldn't work at all. And that would be fine by me."

"Do you really mean that?"

"I certainly do. I'm sick of standing around watching a machine do the same thing day after day. Most of the professional men I know feel the same way. We want to do something. Anything. Did you know that a hundred years ago human-piloted starships were exploring the planets of other solar systems?"

"Yes."

"Well, that's what we should be doing now. Moving outward, exploring, advancing. That's what we need."

"I agree. But don't you think you're saying rather dangerous things?"

"I know I am. But frankly, I just don't care any longer. Let them ship me to Omega if they want to. I'm doing no good here."

"Then you've heard about Omega?"

"Anyone connected with starships knows about Omega. Round trips between Omega and Earth, that's all our ships do. It's a terrible world. Personally, I put the blame on the clergy."

"The clergy?"

"Absolutely. Those sanctimonious fools with their endless drivel about the Church of the Spirit of Mankind Incarnate. It's enough to make a man wish for a little evil...."

* * * * *

(Citizen Father Boeren, age 51, occupation clergyman. A stately, plum-shaped man wearing a saffron robe and white sandals.)

"That's right, my son, I am the abbot of the local branch of the Church of the Spirit of Mankind Incarnate. Our church is the official and exclusive religious expression of the government of Earth. Our religion speaks for all the peoples of Earth. It is a composite of the best elements of all the former religions, both major and minor, skillfully blended into a single all-embracing faith."

"Citizen Abbot, aren't there bound to be contradictions in doctrine among the various religions which make up your faith?"

"There were. But the forgers of our present Church threw out all controversial matter. We wanted agreement, not dissension. We preserve only certain colorful facets of those early great religions; facets with which people can identify. There have never been any schisms in our religion, because we are all-acceptant. One may believe anything one wishes, as long as it preserves the holy spirit of Mankind Incarnate. For our worship, you see, is the true worship of Man. And the spirit we recognize is the spirit of the divine and holy Good."

"Would you define Good for me, Citizen Abbot?"

"Certainly. Good is that force within us which inspires men to acts of conformity and subservience. The worship of Good is essentially the worship of oneself, and therefore the only true worship. The self which one worships is the ideal social being: the man content in his niche in society, yet ready to creatively advance his status. Good is gentle, since it is a true reflection of the loving and pitying universe. Good is continually changing in its aspects, although it comes to us in the ... You have a strange look on your face, young man."

"I'm sorry, Citizen Abbot. I believe I heard that sermon, or one very much like it."

"It is true wherever one hears it."

"Of course. One more question, sir. Could you tell me about the religious instruction of children?"

"That duty is performed for us by the robot-confessors."

"Yes?"

"The notion came to us from the ancient root-faith of Transcendental Freudianism. The robot-confessor instructs children and adults alike. It hears their problems within the social matrix. It is their constant friend, their social mentor, their religious instructor. Being robotic, the confessors are able to give exact and unvarying answers to any question. This aids the great work of Conformity."

"I can see that it does. What do the human priests do?"

"They watch over the robot-confessors."

"Are these robot-confessors present in the closed classrooms?"

"I am not competent to answer that."

"They are, aren't they?"

"I truly do not know. The closed classrooms are closed to abbots as well as other adults."

"By whose order?"

"By order of the Chief of the Secret Police."

"I see.... Thank you, Citizen Abbot Boeren."

* * * * *

(Citizen Enyen Dravivian, age 43, occupation government employee. A narrow-faced, slit-eyed man, old and tired beyond his years.)

"Good afternoon, sir. You say that you are employed by the government?"

"Correct."

"Is that the state or the federal government?"

"Both."

"I see. And have you been in this employ for very long?"

"Approximately eighteen years."

"Yes, sir. Would you mind telling me what, specifically, your job is?"

"Not at all. I am the Chief of the Secret Police."

"You are—I see, sir. That's very interesting. I—"

"Don't reach for your needlebeam, ex-Citizen Barrent. I can assure you, it won't operate in the blanketed area around this house. And if you draw it, you'll be hurt."

"How?"

"I have my own means of protection."

"How did you know my name?"

"I've known about you almost since you set foot upon Earth. We are not entirely without resources you know. But we can discuss all that inside. Won't you come in?"

"I think I'd rather not."

"I'm afraid you have to. Come, Barrent, I won't bite you."

"Am I under arrest?"

"Of course not. We're simply going to have a little talk. That's right, sir, right through there. Just make yourself comfortable."



Chapter Twenty-Eight

Dravivian led him into a large room paneled in walnut. The furniture was of a heavy, black wood, intricately carved and varnished. The desk, high and straight, seemed to be an antique. A heavy tapestry covered one entire wall. It depicted, in fading colors, a medieval hunting scene.

"Do you like it?" Dravivian asked. "My family did the furnishing. My wife copied the tapestry from an original in the Metropolitan Museum. My two sons collaborated on the furniture. They wanted something ancient and Spanish in feeling, but with more comfort than antiques usually give. A slight modification of the lines accomplished that. My own contributions are not visible. Music of the baroque period is my specialty."

"Aside from policework," Barrent said.

"Yes, aside from that." Dravivian turned away from Barrent and looked thoughtfully at the tapestry. "We will come to the matter of the police in due course. Tell me first, what do you think of this room?"

"It's very beautiful," Barrent said.

"Yes. And?"

"Well—I'm no judge."

"You must judge," Dravivian said. "In this room you can see Earth's civilization in miniature. Tell me what you think of it."

"It feels lifeless," Barrent said.

Dravivian turned to Barrent and smiled. "Yes, that's a good word for it. Self-involved might perhaps be better. This is a high-status room, Barrent. A great deal of creativity has gone into the artistic improvement of ancient archetypes. My family has re-created a bit of the Spanish past, as others have re-created bits of the Mayan, Early American, or Oceanic past. And yet, the essential hollowness is obvious. Our automatized factories produce the same goods for us year in and year out. Since everyone has these same goods, it is necessary for us to change the factory product, to improve and embroider it, to express ourselves through it, to rank ourselves by it. That's how Earth is, Barrent. Our energy and skills are channeled into essentially decadent pursuits. We re-carve old furniture, worry about rank and status, and in the meantime the frontier of the distant planets remains unexplored and unconquered. We ceased long ago to expand. Stability brought the danger of stagnation, to which we succumbed. We became so highly socialized that individuality had to be diverted to the most harmless of pursuits, turned inward, kept from any meaningful expression. I think you have seen a fair amount of that in your time on Earth?"

"I have. But I never expected to hear the Chief of the Secret Police say it."

"I'm an unusual man," Dravivian said, with a mocking smile. "And the Secret Police is an unusual institution."

"It must be very efficient. How did you find out about me?"

"That was really quite simple. Most of the people of Earth are security-conditioned from childhood. It's part of our heritage, you know. Nearly all the people you met were able to tell that there was something very wrong about you. You were as obviously out of place as a wolf among sheep. People noticed, and reported directly to me."

"All right," Barrent said. "Now what?"

"First I would like you to tell me about Omega."

Barrent told the Police Chief about his life on the prison planet. Dravivian nodded, a faint smile on his lips.

"Yes, it's very much as I expected," he said. "The same sort of thing has happened on Omega as happened in early America and Australia. There are differences, of course; you have been shut off more completely from the mother country. But the same fierce energy and drive is there, and the same ruthlessness."

"What are you going to do?" Barrent asked.

Dravivian shrugged his shoulders. "It really doesn't matter. I suppose I could kill you. But that wouldn't stop your group on Omega from sending out other spies, or from seizing one of the prison ships. As soon as the Omegans begin to move in force, they'll discover the truth anyhow."

"What truth?"

"By now it must be obvious to you," Dravivian said. "Earth hasn't fought a war for nearly eight hundred years. We wouldn't know how. The organization of guardships around Omega is pure facade. The ships are completely automatized, built to meet conditions of several hundreds years ago. A determined attack will capture a ship; and when you have one, the rest will fall. After that, there's nothing to stop the Omegans from coming back to Earth; and there's nothing on Earth to fight them with. This, you must realize, is the reason why all prisoners leaving Earth are divorced from their memories. If they remembered, Earth's vulnerability would be painfully apparent."

"If you knew all this," Barrent asked, "why didn't your leaders do something about it?"

"That was our original intention. But there was no real drive behind the intention. We preferred not to think about it. We assumed the status quo would remain indefinitely. We didn't want to think about the day when the Omegans returned to Earth."

"What are you and your police going to do about it?" Barrent asked.

"I am facade, too," Dravivian told him. "I have no police. The position of Chief is entirely honorary. There has been no need of a police force on Earth for close to a century."

"You're going to need one when the Omegans come home," Barrent said.

"Yes. There's going to be crime again, and serious trouble. But I think the final amalgamation will be successful. You on Omega have the drive, the ambition to reach the stars. I believe you need a certain stability and creativeness which Earth can provide. Whatever the results, the union is inevitable. We've lived in a dream here for too long. It's going to take violent measures to awaken us."

Dravivian rose to his feet. "And now," he said, "since the fate of Earth and Omega seem to be decided, could I offer you some refreshment?"



Chapter Twenty-Nine

With the help of the Chief of Police, Barrent put a message aboard the next ship to leave for Omega. The message told about conditions on Earth and urged immediate action. When that was finished, Barrent was ready for his final job—to find the judge who had sentenced him for a crime he hadn't committed, and the lying informer who had turned him in to the judge. When he found those two, Barrent knew he would regain the missing portions of his memory.

He took the night expressway to Youngerstun. His suspicions, sharply keyed from life on Omega, would not let him rest. There had to be a catch to all this splendid simplicity. Perhaps he would find it in Youngerstun.

By early morning he was there. Superficially, the neat rows of houses looked the same as in any other town. But for Barrent they were different, and achingly familiar. He remembered this town, and the monotonous houses had individuality and meaning for him. He had been born and raised in this town.

There was Grothmeir's store, and across the street was the home of Havening, the local interior decorating champion. Here was Billy Havelock's house. Billy had been his best friend. They had planned on being starmen together, and had remained good friends after school—until Barrent had been sentenced to Omega.

Here was Andrew Therkaler's house. And down the block was the school he had attended. He could remember the classes. He could remember how, every day, they had gone through the door that led to the closed class. But he still could not remember what he had learned there.

Right here, near two huge elms, the murder had taken place. Barrent walked to the spot and remembered how it had happened. He had been on his way home. From somewhere down the street he had heard a scream. He had turned, and a man—Illiardi—had run down the street and thrown something at him. Barrent had caught it instinctively and found himself holding an illegal handgun. A few steps further, he had looked into the twisted dead face of Andrew Therkaler.

And what had happened next? Confusion. Panic. A sensation of someone watching as he stood, weapon in hand, over the corpse. There, at the end of the street, was the refuge to which he had gone.

He walked up to it, and recognized it as a robot-confessional booth.

Barrent entered the booth. It was small, and there was a faint odor of incense in the air. The room contained a single chair. Facing it was a complex, brilliantly lighted panel.

"Good morning, Will," the panel said to him.

Barrent had a sudden sense of helplessness when he heard that soft mechanical voice. He remembered it now. The passionless voice knew all, understood all, and forgave nothing. That artfully manufactured voice had spoken to him, had listened, and then had judged. In his dream, he had personified the robot-confessor into the figure of a human judge.

"You remember me?" Barrent asked.

"Of course," said the robot-confessor. "You were one of my parishioners before you went to Omega."

"You sent me there."

"For the crime of murder."

"But I didn't commit the crime!" Barrent said. "I didn't do it, and you must have known it!"

"Of course I knew it," the robot-confessor said. "But my powers and duties are strictly defined. I sentence according to evidence, not intuition. By law, the robot-confessors must weigh only the concrete evidence which is put before them. They must, when in doubt, sentence. In fact, the mere presence of a man before me charged with murder must be taken as a strong presumption of his guilt."

"Was there evidence against me?"

"Yes."

"Who gave it?"

"I cannot reveal his name."

"You must!" Barrent said. "Times are changing on Earth. The prisoners are coming back. Did you know that?"

"I expected it," the robot-confessor said.

"I must have the informer's name," Barrent said. He took the needlebeam out of his pocket and advanced toward the panel.

"A machine cannot be coerced," the robot-confessor told him.

"Give me the name!" Barrent shouted.

"I should not, for your own good. The danger would be too great. Believe me, Will...."

"The name!"

"Very well. You will find the informer at Thirty-five Maple Street. But I earnestly advise you not to go there. You will be killed. You simply do not know—"

Barrent pressed the trigger, and the narrow beam scythed through the panel. Lights flashed and faded as he cut through the intricate wiring. At last all the lights were dead, and a faint gray smoke came from the panel.

Barrent left the booth. He put the needlebeam back in his pocket and walked to Maple Street.

* * * * *

He had been here before. He knew this street, set upon a hill, rising steeply between oak and maple trees. Those lampposts were old friends, that crack in the pavement was an ancient landmark. Here were the houses, heavy with familiarity. They seemed to lean expectantly toward him, like spectators waiting for the final act of an almost forgotten drama.

He stood in front of 35 Maple Street. The silence which surrounded that plain white-shuttered house struck him as ominous. He took the needlebeam out of his pocket, looking for a reassurance he knew he could not find. Then he walked up the neat flagstones and tried the front door. It opened. He stepped inside.

He made out the dim shades of lamps and furniture, the dull gleam of a painting on the wall, a piece of statuary on an ebony pedestal. Needlebeam in hand, he stepped into the next room.

And came face to face with the informer.

Staring at the informer's face, Barrent remembered. In an overpowering flood of memory he saw himself, a little boy, entering the closed classroom. He heard again the soothing hum of machinery, watched the pretty lights blink and flash, heard the insinuating machine voice whisper in his ear. At first, the voice filled him with horror; what it suggested was unthinkable. Then, slowly, he became accustomed to it, and accustomed to all the strange things that happened in the closed classroom.

He learned. The machines taught on deep, unconscious levels. The machines intertwined their lessons with the basic drives, weaving a pattern of learned behavior with the life instinct. They taught, then blocked off conscious knowledge of the lessons, sealed it—and fused it.

What had he been taught? For the social good, you must be your own policeman and witness. You must assume responsibility for any crime which might conceivably be yours.

The face of the informer stared impassively at him. It was Barrent's own face, reflected back from a mirror on the wall.

He had informed on himself. Standing with the gun in his hand that day, looking down at the murdered man, learned unconscious processes had taken over. The presumption of guilt had been too great for him to resist, the similarity to guilt had turned into guilt itself. He had walked to the robot-confessor's booth, and there he had given complete and damning evidence against himself, had indicted himself on the basis of probability.

The robot-confessor had passed the obligatory sentence and Barrent had left the booth. Well-trained in the lessons of the classroom, he had taken himself into custody, had gone to the nearest thought-control center in Trenton. Already a partial amnesia had taken place, keyed to and triggered by the lessons of the closed classroom.

The skilled android technicians in the thought-control center had labored hard to complete this amnesia, to obliterate any remnants of memory. As a standard safeguard against any possible recovering of his memory, they had implanted a logical construct of his crime beneath the conscious level. As the regulations required, this construct contained an implication of the far-reaching power of Earth.

When the job was completed, an automatized Barrent had marched out of the center, taken a special expressway to the prison ship depot, boarded the prison ship, entered his cell, and closed the door and left Earth behind him. Then he had slept until the checkpoint had been passed, after which the newly arrived guards awakened the prisoners for disembarkation on Omega....

Now, staring at his own face in the mirror, the last of the conscious lessons of the classroom became conscious:

The lessons of the closed classroom must never be consciously known by the individual. If they become conscious the human organism must perform an immediate act of self-destruction.

Now he saw why his conquest of Earth had been so easy; it was because he had conquered nothing. Earth needed no security forces, for the policeman and the executioner were implanted in every man's mind. Beneath the surface of Earth's mild and pleasant culture was a self-perpetuating robot civilization. An awareness of that civilization was punishable by death.

And here, at this moment, the real struggle for Earth began.

Learned behavior patterns intertwined with basic life drives forced Barrent to raise the needlebeam, to point it toward his head. This was what the robot-confessor had tried to warn him about, and what the mutant girl had skrenned. The younger Barrent, conditioned to absolute and mindless conformity, had to kill himself.

The older Barrent who had spent time on Omega fought that blind urge. A schizophrenic Barrent fought himself. The two parts of him battled for possession of the weapon, for control of the body, for ownership of the mind.

The needlebeam's movement stopped inches from his head. The muzzle wavered. Then slowly, the new Omegan Barrent, Barrent-2, forced the weapon away.

His victory was short-lived. For now the lessons of the closed classroom took over, forcing Barrent-2 into a contrasurvival struggle with the implacable and death-desiring Barrent-1.



Chapter Thirty

Conditioning took over and flung the fighting Barrents backward through subjective time, to those stress points in the past where death had been near, where the temporal life fabric had been weakened, where a predisposition toward death had already been established. Conditioning forced Barrent-2 to re-experience those moments. But this time, the danger was augmented by the full force of the malignant half of his personality—by the murderous informer, Barrent-1.

* * * * *

Barrent-2 stood under glaring lights on the blood-stained sands of the Arena, a sword in his hand. It was the time of the Omegan Games. Coming at him was the Saunus, a heavily armored reptile with the leering face of Barrent-1. Barrent-2 severed the creature's tail, and it changed into three trichomotreds, rat-sized, Barrent-faced, with the dispositions of rabid wolverines. He killed two, and the third grinned and bit his left hand to the bone. He killed it, and watched Barrent-1's blood leak into the soggy sand....

* * * * *

Three ragged men sat laughing on a bench, and a girl handed him a small gun. "Luck," she said. "I hope you know how to use this." Barrent nodded his thanks before he noticed that the girl was not Moera; she was the skrenning mutant who had predicted his death. Still, he moved into the street and faced the three Hadjis.

Two of the men were mild-faced strangers. The third, Barrent-1, stepped forward and quickly brought his gun into firing position. Barrent-2 flung himself to the ground and pressed the trigger of his unfamiliar weapon. He felt it vibrate in his hand and saw Hadji Barrent's head and shoulders turn black and begin to crumble. Before he could take aim again, his gun was wrenched violently from his hand. Barrent-1's dying shot had creased the end of the muzzle.

Desperately he dived for the weapon, and as he rolled toward it he saw the second man, now wearing the Barrent-1 face, take careful aim. Barrent-2 felt pain flash through his arm, already torn by the trichomotred's teeth. He managed to shoot this Barrent-1, and through a haze of pain faced the third man, now also Barrent-1. His arm was stiffening rapidly, but he forced himself to press the trigger....

* * * * *

You're playing their game, Barrent-2 told himself. The death-conditioning will wear you down, will kill you. You must see through it, get past it. It isn't really happening, it's in your mind....

But there was no time to think. He was in a large, circular, high-ceilinged room of stone in the cellars of the Department of Justice. It was the Trial by Ordeal. Rolling across the floor toward him was a glistening black machine shaped like a half-sphere, standing almost four feet high. It came at him, and in the pattern of red, green, and amber lights he could see the hated face of Barrent-1.

Now his enemy was in its ultimate form: the invariant robot consciousness, as false and stylized as the conditioned dreams of Earth. The Barrent-1 machine extruded a single slender tentacle with a white light winking at the end of it. As it approached, the tentacle withdrew, and in its place appeared a jointed metal arm ending in a knife-edge. Barrent-2 dodged, and heard the knife scrape against the stone.

It isn't what you think it is, Barrent-2 told himself. It isn't a machine, and you are not back on Omega. This is only half of yourself you are fighting, this is nothing but a deadly illusion.

But he couldn't believe it. The Barrent machine was coming at him again, its metal hide glistening with a foul green substance which Barrent-2 recognized immediately as Contact Poison. He broke into a sprint, trying to stay away from the fatal touch.

It isn't fatal, he told himself.

Neutralizer washed over the metal surface, clearing away the poison. The machine tried to ram him. Barrent tried half-heartedly to push it aside. It crashed into him with stunning force, and he could feel ribs splintering.

It isn't real! You're letting a conditioned reflex talk you to death! You aren't on Omega! You're on Earth, in your own home, staring into a mirror!

But the pain was real, and the clubbed metal arm felt real as it crashed against his shoulder. Barrent staggered away.

He felt horror, not at dying, but at dying too soon, before he could warn the Omegans of this ultimate danger planted deep in their own minds. There was no one else to warn of the catastrophe that would strike each man as he recovered his own specific memories of Earth. To his best knowledge, no one had experienced this and lived. If he could live through it, countermeasures could be taken, counterconditioning could be set up.

He pulled himself to his feet. Coached since childhood in social responsibility, he thought of it now. He couldn't allow himself to die when his knowledge was vital to Omega.

This is not a real machine.

He repeated it to himself as the Barrent machine revved up, picked up speed, and hurtled toward him from the far side of the room. He forced himself to see beyond the machine, to see the patient droning lessons of the classroom which had created this monster in his mind.

This is not a real machine.

He believed it....

And swung his fist into the hated face reflected in the metal.

There was a moment of dazzling pain, and then he lost consciousness. When he came to, he was alone in his own home on Earth. His arm and shoulder ached, and several of his ribs seemed to be broken. On his left hand he bore the stigmata of the trichomotred's bite.

But with his cut and bleeding right hand he had smashed the mirror. He had shattered it and Barrent-1 utterly and forever.



OMEGA

RELIGION: THE WORSHIP OF EVIL

PLEASURES: THE THRILL OF THE HUNT, WITH HUMAN PREY

STATUS: ATTAINED ONE CORPSE AT A TIME

LIFE EXPECTANCY: THREE EARTH YEARS

"ALL OF YOU ARE CRIMINALS THEREFORE MANKIND HAS REJECTED YOU, AND YOU HAVE BEEN SENT TO A WORLD WHERE YOUR OWN SORT IS KING. HERE YOU CAN MAKE YOUR OWN RULES, AND DIE BY THEM ..."

THE STATUS CIVILIZATION



Transcriber's List of Corrections

Chapter One Page 1, "futher" changed to "further." (He awoke, rubbed his eyes, and waited for further memories to come.) Page 9, "ot think" changed to "to think." (All he wanted to do was lie down, to sleep, to have a chance to think about his situation.)

Chapter Two Page 14, "theif" changed to "thief." (I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember what a credit thief is.)

Chapter Five Page 36, "wtih" changed to "with." (She appeared to be dissatisfied with her husband; and divorce was forbidden on Omega.)

Chapter Nine Page 65, "murder" changed to "murderer." (Before his visit to the Dream Shop he had never felt himself a murderer, no matter what the Earth authorities had accused him of.)

Chapter Sixteen Page 107, "undected" changed to "undetected." (By noon, Barrent was still undetected.) Page 114, "were were" changed to "were." (If he were able to get by the city gate, he would have to watch for the hunting patrols.)

Chapter Eighteen Page 125, "Barren" changed to "Barrent." (Barrent ducked out of a corner in which the creeping vines were trapping him.)

Chapter Twenty-Three Page 151, "coud" changed to "could." (Barrent backed away, wondering if a needlebeam could stop it.)

Chapter Twenty-Four Page 159, Added a missing end-quote. (The full facilities of this park are waiting for all lovers of the great outdoors.") Page 159, "Presumbaly" changed to "Presumably." (Presumably they liked this sort of thing.)

THE END

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