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Chapter Five

Barrent needed time to recuperate from his violent entry into Omegan life. Starting from the helpless state of a newborn, he had moved through murder to the ownership of an antidote shop. From a forgotten past on a planet called Earth, he had been catapulted into a dubious present in a world full of criminals. He had gotten a glimpse of a complex class structure, and a hint of an institutionalized program of murder. He had discovered in himself a certain measure of self-reliance, and a surprising quickness with a gun. He knew there was a great deal more to find out about Omega, Earth, and himself. He hoped he would live long enough to make the necessary discoveries.

First things first. He had to earn a living. To do so, he had to find out about poisons and antidotes.

He moved into the apartment in back of his store and began reading the books left by the late Hadji Draken.

The literature on poisons was fascinating. There were the vegetable poisons known on Earth, such as hellebore, setterwort, deadly nightshade, and the yew tree. He learned about the action of hemlock — its preliminary intoxication and its final convulsions. There was prussic acid poisoning from almonds and digitalin poisoning from purple foxglove. There was the awesome efficiency of wolfsbane with its deadly store of aconite. There were the fungi such as the amanita toadstools and fly agaric, not to mention the purely Omegan vegetable poisons like redcup, flowering lily, and amortalis.

But the vegetable poisons, although dismayingly numerous, were only one part of his studies. He had to consider the animals of Earth, sea, and air, the several species of deadly spiders, the snakes, scorpions, and giant wasps. There was an imposing array of metallic poisons such as arsenic, mercury, and bismuth. There were the commoner corrosives — nitric, hydrochloric, phosphoric, and sulphuric acid. And there were the poisons distilled or extracted from various sources, among which were strychnine, formic acid, hyoscyamine, and belladonna.

Each of the poisons had one or more antidotes listed; but those complicated, cautiously worded formulas, Barrent suspected, were frequently unsuccessful. To make matters more difficult, the efficacy of an antidote seemed to depend upon a correct diagnosis of the poisoning agent. And too often the symptoms produced by one poison resembled those of another.

Barrent pondered these problems while he studied his books. In the meantime, with considerable nervousness, he served his first customers.

He found that many of his fears were ungrounded. In spite of the dozens of lethal substances recommended by the Poison Institute, most poisoners stuck single-mindedly to arsenic or strychnine. They were cheap, sure, and very painful. Prussic acid had a readily discernible odor, mercury was difficult to introduce into the system, and the corrosives, although gratifyingly spectacular, were dangerous to the user. Wolfsbane and fly agaric were excellent, of course; deadly nightshade could not be discounted, and the amanita toadstool had its own macabre charm. But these were the poisons of an older, more leisurely age. The impatient younger generation — and especially the women, who made up nearly 90 per cent of the poisoners on Omega — were satisfied with plain arsenic or strychnine, as the occasion and opportunity demanded.

Omegan women were conservatives. They simply weren't interested in the never-ending refinements of the poisoner's art. Means didn't interest them; only ends, as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Omegan women were noted for their common sense. Although the eager theoreticians at the Poison Institute tried to sell dubious mixtures of Contact Poison or Three Day Mold, and worked hard to put across complex, haywire schemes involving wasps, concealed needles, and double glasses, they found few takers among women. Simple arsenic and fast-acting strychnine continued to be the mainstays of the poison trade.

This quite naturally simplified Barrent's work. His remedies — immediate regurgitation, lavage, neutralizing agent — were easy enough to master.

He encountered some difficulty with men who refused to believe they had been poisoned by anything so commonplace as arsenic or strychnine. For those cases, Barrent prescribed a variety of roots, herbs, twigs, leaves, and a minute homeopathic dose of poison. But he invariably preceded these with regurgitation, lavage, and neutralizing agent.

After he was settled, Barrent received a visit from Danis Foeren and Joe. Foeren had a temporary job on the docks unloading fishing boats. Joe had organized a nightly pokra game among the government workers of Tetrahyde. Neither man had moved much in status; with no kills to their credit, they had progressed only as far as Second Class Resident. They were nervous about meeting socially with a Free Citizen, but Barrent put them at ease. They were the only friends he had on Omega, and he had no intention of losing them over a question of social position.

Barrent was unable to learn very much from them about the laws and customs of Tetrahyde. Even Joe hadn't been able to find out anything definite from his friends in government service. On Omega, the law was kept secret. Older residents used their knowledge of the law to enforce their rule over the newcomers. This system was condoned and reinforced by the doctrine of the inequality of all men, which lay at the heart of the Omegan legal system. Through planned inequality and enforced ignorance, power and status remained in the hands of the older residents.

Of course, all social movement upward couldn't be stopped. But it could be retarded, discouraged, and made exceedingly dangerous. The way one encountered the laws and customs of Omega was through a risky process of trial and error.

Although the Antidote Shop took up most of his time, Barrent persisted in his efforts to locate the girl. He was unable to find a hint that she even existed.

He became friendly with the shopkeepers on either side of him. One of them, Demond Harrisbourg, was a jaunty, moustached young man who operated a food store. It was a mundane and slightly ridiculous line of work; but, as Harrisbourg explained, even criminals must eat. And this necessitated farmers, processors, packagers, and food stores. Harrisbourg contended that his business was in no way inferior to the more indigenous Omegan industries centered around violent death. Besides, Harrisbourg's wife's uncle was a Minister of Public Works. Through him, Harrisbourg expected to receive a murder certificate. With this all-important document, he could make his six-months kill and move upward to the status of Privileged Citizen.

Barrent nodded his agreement. But he wondered if Harrisbourg's wife, a thin, restless woman, wouldn't decide to poison him first. She appeared to be dissatisfied with her husband; and divorce was forbidden on Omega.

His other neighbor, Tem Rend, was a lanky, cheerful man in his early forties. He had a heat scar which ran from just beneath his left ear down almost to the corner of his mouth, a souvenir given him by a status-seeking hopeful. The hopeful had picked on the wrong man. Tem Rend owned a weapon shop, practiced constantly, and always carried the articles of his trade with him. According to witnesses, he had performed the counterkill in exemplary fashion. Tem's dream was to become a member of the Assassin's Guild. His application was on file with that ancient and austere organization, and he had a chance of being accepted within the month.

Barrent bought a sidearm from him. On Rend's advice, he chose a Jamiason-Tyre needlebeam. It was faster and more accurate than any projectile weapon, and it transmitted the same shock-power as a heavy caliber bullet. To be sure, it hadn't the spread of heat weapons such as the Hadjis used, which could kill within six inches of their target. But wide-range beamers encouraged inaccuracy. They were messy, careless weapons which reinforced careless traits. Anyone could fire a heat gun; but to use a needlebeam effectively, you had to practice constantly. And practice paid off. A good needlebeam man was more than a match for any two widebeam gunmen.

Barrent took this advice to heart, coming, as it did, from an apprentice assassin and the owner of a weapon shop. He put in long hours on Rend's cellar firing range, sharpening his reflexes, getting used to the Quik-Thro holster.

There was a lot to do and a tremendous amount to learn, just in order to survive. Barrent didn't mind hard work as long as it was for a worthwhile goal. He hoped things would stay quiet for a while so he could catch up to the older inhabitants.

But things never stayed quiet in Omega.

One day, late in the afternoon as he was closing up, Barrent received an unusual-looking caller. He was a man in his fifties, heavy-set, with a stern, swarthy face. He wore a red ankle-length robe and sandals. Around his waist was a rawhide belt from which dangled a small black book and a red-handled dagger. There was an air of unusual force and authority about him. Barrent was unable to tell his status.

Barrent said, "I was just closing up, sir. But if there's anything you wish to buy —"

"I did not come here to buy," the caller said. He permitted himself a faint smile. "I came here to sell."

"Sell?"

"I am a priest," the man said. "You are a newcomer to my district. I haven't noticed you at services."

"I hadn't known anything about —"

The priest held up his hand. "Under both the sacred and the profane law, ignorance is no excuse for nonperformance of one's duties. Indeed, ignorance can be punished as an act of willful neglect, based upon the Total Personal Responsibility Act of '23, to say nothing of the Lesser Codicil." He smiled again. "However, there is no question of chastisement for you as yet."

"I'm glad to hear that, sir," Barrent said.

"'Uncle' is the proper form of address," the priest said. "I am Uncle Ingemar, and I have come to tell you about the orthodox religion of Omega, which is the worship of that pure and transcendent spirit of Evil which is our inspiration and our comfort."

Barrent said, "I'll be very happy to hear about the religion of Evil, Uncle. Shall we go into the living room?"

"By all means, Nephew," the priest said, and followed Barrent to the apartment in back of the store.


Chapter Four | The Status Civilization | Chapter Six







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