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Chapter Three

"The first thing you new men should understand," the Quaestor said, "is just exactly what you are. That's very important. And I'll tell you what you are. You're peons. You're the lowest of the low. You're statusless. There's nothing lower except mutants, and they aren't really human. Any questions?"

The Quaestor waited. When there were no questions, he said, "I've defined what you are. From that, we'll proceed to a basic understanding of what everybody else on Omega is. First of all, everybody is more important than you; but some are more important than others. Next above you in rank is the Resident, who hardly counts for more than any of you, and then there's the Free Citizen. He wears a gray finger ring of status, and his clothes are black. He isn't important either, but he's much more important than you. With luck, some of you may become Free Citizens.

"Next are the Privileged Classes, all distinguished by various recognition symbols according to rank — such as the golden earrings, for example, of the Hadji class. Eventually you'll learn all the marks and prerogatives of the various ranks and degrees. I might also mention the priests. Even though they're not of Privileged rank, they're granted certain immunities and rights. Have I made myself clear?"

Everyone in the barracks mumbled assent. The Quaestor continued, "Now we come to the subject of deportment when meeting anyone of superior rank. As peons, you are obliged to greet a Free Citizen by his full title, in a respectful manner. With Privileged ranks such as Hadjis you speak only when spoken to, and then you stand with eyes downcast and hands clasped in front of you. You do not leave the presence of a Privileged Citizen until permission has been granted. You do not sit in his company under any circumstances. Understood? There is much more to be learned. My office of Quaestor, for example, comes under the classification of Free Citizen, but carries certain of the prerogatives of Privilege."

The Quaestor glared at the men to make sure they understood. "This barracks is your temporary home. I have drawn up a chart to show which men sweep, which wash, and so forth. You may question me at anytime; but foolish or impertinent questions can be punished by mutilation or death. Just remember that you are the lowest of the low. If you bear that in mind, you might be able to stay alive."

The Quaestor stood in silence for a few moments. Then he said, "Over the next few days, you'll all be given various assignments. Some of you will go to the germanium mines, some to the fishing fleet, some will be apprenticed to various trades. In the meantime, you're free to look around Tetrahyde."

When the men looked blank, the Quaestor explained, "Tetrahyde is the name of the city you're in. It's the largest city on Omega." He thought for a moment. "In fact, it's the only city on Omega."

"What does the name Tetrahyde mean?" Joe asked.

"How should I know?" the Quaestor said, scowling. "I suppose it's one of those old Earth names the skrenners are always coming up with. Anyhow, just watch your step when you enter it."

"Why?" Barrent asked.

The Quaestor grinned. "That, peon, is something you'll have to find out for yourself." He turned and strode from the barracks.

When he had gone, Barrent went to the window. From it he could see a deserted square and, beyond, the streets of Tetrahyde.

"You thinking of going out there?" Joe asked.

"Certainly I am," Barrent said. "Coming with me?"

The little credit thief shook his head. "I don't think it's safe."

"Foeren, how about you?"

"I don't like it either," Foeren said. "Might be better to stay around the barracks for a while."

"That's ridiculous," Barrent said. "It's our city now. Isn't anyone coming with me?"

Looking uncomfortable, Foeren hunched his big shoulders and shook his head. Joe shrugged and lay back on his cot. The rest of the new men didn't even look up.

"Very well," Barrent said. "I'll give you a full report later." He waited a moment longer in case someone changed his mind, then went out the door.

The city of Tetrahyde was a collection of buildings sprawled along a narrow peninsula which jutted into a sluggish gray sea. The peninsula's landward side was contained by a high stone wall, pierced with gates and guarded by sentries. Its largest building was the Arena, used once a year for the Games. Near the Arena was a small cluster of government buildings.

Barrent walked along the narrow streets, staring around him, trying to get some idea of what his new home was like. The winding, unpaved roads and dark, weatherbeaten houses stirred an elusive tag-end of memory in him. He had seen a place like this on Earth, but he couldn't remember anything about it. The recollection was as tantalizing as an itch; but he couldn't locate its source.

Past the Arena, he came into the main business district of Tetrahyde. Fascinated, he read the store signs: UNLICENSED DOCTOR — ABORTIONS PERFORMED WHILE-U-WAIT. Further on, DISBARRED LAWYER. POLITICAL PULL!

This seemed vaguely wrong to Barrent. He walked further, past stores advertising stolen goods, past a little shop that announced: MIND READING! FULL STAFF OF SKRENNING MUTANTS! YOUR PAST ON EARTH REVEALED!

Barrent was tempted to go in. But he remembered that he hadn't any money; and Omega seemed like the sort of place that put a high value on money.

He turned down a side street, walked by several restaurants, and came to a large building called THE POISON INSTITUTE (Easy Terms. Up to 3 Years to Pay. Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back ). Next door to it was THE ASSASSIN'S GUILD, Local 452.

On the basis of the indoctrination talk on the prison ship, Barrent had expected Omega to be dedicated to the rehabilitation of criminals. To judge by the store signs, this simply wasn't so; or if it was, rehabilitation took some very strange forms. He walked on more slowly, deep in thought.

Then he noticed that people were moving out of his way. They glanced at him and ducked in doorways and stores. An elderly woman took one look at him and ran.

What was wrong? Could it be his prison uniform? No, the people of Omega had seen many of those. What was it, then?

The street was almost deserted. A shopkeeper near him was hurriedly swinging steel shutters over his display of fencing equipment.

"What's the matter?" Barrent asked him. "What's going on?"

"Are you out of your head?" the shopkeeper said. "It's Landing Day!"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Landing Day!" the shopkeeper said. "The day the prison ship landed. Get back to your barracks, you idiot!"

He slammed the last steel shutter into place and locked it. Barrent felt a sudden cold touch of fear. Something was very wrong. He had better get back in a hurry. It had been stupid of him not to find out more about Omegan customs before….

Three men were walking down the street toward him. They were well dressed, and each wore the small golden Hadji earring in his left ear. All three men carried sidearms.

Barrent started to walk away from them. One of the men shouted, "Stop, peon!"

Barrent saw that the man's hand was dangling near his gun. He stopped and said, "What's the matter?"

"It's Landing Day," the man said. He looked at his friends. "Well, who gets him first?"

"We'll choose."

"Here's a coin."

"No, a show of fingers."

"Ready? One, two, three!"

"He's mine," said the Hadji on the left. His friends moved back as he drew his sidearm.

"Wait!" Barrent called out. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going to shoot you," the man said.

"But why?"

The man smiled. "Because it's a Hadji privilege. On every Landing Day, we have the right to shoot down any new peon who leaves his barracks area."

"But I wasn't told!"

"Of course not," the man said. "If you new men were told, none of you would leave your barracks on Landing Day. And that would spoil all the fun."

He took aim.

Barrent reacted instantaneously. He threw himself to the ground as the Hadji fired, heard a hiss, and saw a jagged heatburn score the brick building next to which he had been standing.

"My turn now," one of the men said.

"Sorry, old man, I believe it's mine."

"Seniority, dear friend, has its privileges. Stand clear."

Before the next man could take aim, Barrent was on his feet and running. The sharply winding street protected him for the moment, but he could hear the sounds of his pursuers behind him. They were running at an easy stride, almost a fast walk, as if they were completely sure of their prey. Barrent put on a burst of speed, turned down a side street, and knew immediately he had made a mistake. He was facing a dead end. The Hadjis, moving at an easy pace, were coming up behind him.

Barrent looked wildly around. Store fronts here were all locked and shuttered. There was nowhere he could climb to, no place to hide.

And then he saw an open door halfway down the block in the direction of his pursuers. He had run right by it. A sign protruding from the building above the doorway said THE VICTIM'S PROTECTIVE SOCIETY. That's for me, Barrent thought.

He sprinted for it, running almost under the noses of the startled Hadjis. A single gun blast scorched the ground under his heels; then he had reached the doorway and flung himself inside.

He scrambled to his feet. His pursuers had not followed him; he could still hear their voices in the street, amiably arguing questions of precedence. Barrent realized he had entered some sort of sanctuary.

He was in a large, brightly lighted room. Several ragged men were sitting on a bench near the door, laughing at a private joke. A little further down, a dark-haired girl sat and watched Barrent with wide, unblinking green eyes. At the far end of the room was a desk with a man sitting behind it. The man beckoned to Barrent.

He walked up to the desk. The man behind it was short and bespectacled. He smiled encouragingly, waiting for Barrent to speak.

"This is the Victim's Protective Society?" Barrent asked.

"Quite correct, sir," the man said. "I am Rondolp Frendlyer, president of this nonprofit organization. Could I be of service?"

"You certainly could," Barrent said. "I'm practically a victim."

"I knew that just by looking at you," Frendlyer said, smiling warmly. "You have a certain victim look; a mixture of fear and uncertainty with just a suggestion of vulnerability thrown in. It's quite unmistakable."

"That's very interesting," Barrent said, glancing toward the door and wondering how long his sanctuary would be respected. "Mr. Frendlyer, I'm not a member of your organization —"

"That doesn't matter," Frendlyer said. "Membership in our group is necessarily spontaneous. One joins when the occasion arises. Our intention is to protect the inalienable rights of all victims."

"Yes, sir. Well, there are three men outside trying to kill me."

"I see," Mr. Frendlyer said. He opened a drawer and took out a large book. He flipped through it quickly and found the reference he wanted. "Tell me, did you ascertain the status of these men?"

"I believe they were Hadjis," Barrent said. "Each of them had a little gold earring in his left ear."

"Quite right," Mr. Frendlyer said. "And today is Landing Day. You came off the ship that landed today, and have been classified a peon. Is that correct?"

"Yes, it is," Barrent said.

"Then I'm happy to say that everything is in order. The Landing Day Hunt ends at sundown. You can leave here with knowledge that everything is correct and that your rights are in no way being violated."

"Leave here? After sundown, you mean."

Mr. Frendlyer shook his head and smiled sadly. "I'm afraid not. According to the law, you must leave here at once."

"But they'll kill me!"

"That's very true," Frendlyer said. "Unfortunately, it can't be helped. A victim, by definition, is one who is to be killed."

"I thought this was a protective organization."

"It is. But we protect rights, not victims. Your rights are not being violated. The Hadjis have the privilege of killing you on Landing Day, at any time before sundown, if you are not in your barracks area. You, I might add, have the right to kill anyone who tries to kill you."

"I don't have a weapon," Barrent said.

"Victims never do," Frendlyer said. "It makes all the difference, doesn't it? But weapon or not, I'm afraid you'll have to leave now."

Barrent could still hear the Hadjis' lazy voices in the street. He asked, "Have you a rear door?"

"Sorry."

"Then I'll simply not leave."

Still smiling, Mr. Frendlyer opened a drawer and took out a gun. He pointed it at Barrent, and said, "You really must leave. You can take your chances with the Hadjis, or you can die right here with no chance at all."

"Lend me your gun," Barrent said.

"It isn't allowed," Frendlyer told him. "Can't have victims running around with weapons, you know. It would upset things." He clicked off the safety. "Are you leaving?"

Barrent calculated his chances of diving across the desk for the gun, and decided he would never make it. He turned and walked slowly to the door. The ragged men were still laughing together. The dark-haired girl had risen from the bench and was standing near the doorway. As he came close to her, Barrent noticed that she was very lovely. He wondered what crime had dictated her expulsion from Earth.

As he passed her, he felt something hard pressed into his ribs. He reached for it, and found he was holding a small, efficient-looking gun.

"Luck," the girl said. "I hope you know how to use it."

Barrent nodded his thanks. He wasn't sure he knew how; but he was going to find out.


Chapter Two | The Status Civilization | Chapter Four







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