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Chapter Seven

It had turned into a hot, almost suffocatingly humid night when Barrent began his walk. Not the faintest breath of air stirred along the darkened streets. Although he was wearing only a black mesh shirt, shorts, gunbelt, and sandals, Barrent felt as if he were wrapped in a thick blanket. Most of the people of Tetrahyde, except for those already at the Covens, had retired to the coolness of their cellars. The dark streets were nearly deserted.

Barrent walked on, more slowly. The few people he met were running to their homes. There was a sense of panic in that silent, dogged sprint through heat which made walking difficult. Barrent tried to find out what the matter was, but no one would stop. One old man shouted over his shoulder, "Get off the street, idiot!"

"Why?" Barrent asked him.

The old man snarled something unintelligible and hurried on.

Barrent kept on walking, nervously fingering the butt of his needlebeam. Something was certainly wrong, but he had no idea what it was. His nearest shelter now was the Wee Coven, about half a mile away. It seemed best to keep on moving in that direction, staying alert, waiting to see what was wrong.

In a few minutes, Barrent was alone in a tightly shuttered city. He moved into the center of the street, loosened the needlebeam in its holster, and prepared for attack from any side. Perhaps this was some special holiday like Landing Day. Perhaps Free Citizens were fair game tonight. Anything seemed possible on a planet like Omega.

He thought he was ready for any possibility. But when the attack came, it was from an unexpected quarter.

A faint breeze stirred the stagnant air. It faded and returned, stronger this time, perceptibly cooling the hot streets. Wind rolled off the mountains of the interior and swept through the streets of Tetrahyde, and Barrent could feel the perspiration on his chest and back begin to dry.

For a few minutes, the climate of Tetrahyde was as pleasant as anything he could imagine.

Then the temperature continued to fall.

It dropped rapidly. Frigid air swept in from the distant mountain slopes, and the temperature fell through the seventies into the sixties.

This is ridiculous, Barrent thought to himself. I'd better get to the Coven.

He walked more rapidly, while the temperature plummeted. It passed through the forties into the low thirties. The first glittering signs of frost appeared on the streets.

It can't go much lower, Barrent thought.

But it could. An angry winter wind blew through the streets, and the temperature dropped into the twenties. Moisture in the air began forming into sleet.

Chilled to the bone, Barrent ran down the empty streets, and the wind, rising to gale force, pulled and tugged at him. The streets glittered with ice, making the footing dangerous. He skidded and fell, and had to run at a slower pace to keep his footing. And still the temperature dropped, and the wind growled and snapped like an angry beast.

He saw light through a heavily shuttered window. He stopped and pounded at the shutters, but no sound came from inside. He realized that the people of Tetrahyde never helped anyone; the more who died, the more chance there was for the survivors. So Barrent continued running, on feet that felt like chunks of wood.

The wind shrieked in his ear, and hailstones the size of his fist pelted the ground. He was getting too tired to run. All he could do now was walk, through a frozen white world, and hope he would reach the Wee Coven.

He walked for hours or for years. At one corner he passed the bodies of two men huddled against a wall and covered with frost. They had stopped running and had frozen to death.

Barrent forced himself to run again. A stitch in his side felt like a knife wound, and the cold was creeping up his arms and down his legs. Soon the cold would reach his chest, and that would be the end.

A flurry of hailstones stunned him. Without conscious transition he found that he was lying on the icy ground, and a monstrous wind was whirling away the tiny warmth his body was able to generate.

At the far end of the block he could see the tiny red light of the Coven. He crept toward it on hands and knees, moving mechanically, not really expecting to get there. He crawled forever, and the beckoning red light always remained the same distance from him.

But he kept on crawling, and at last he reached the door of the Coven. He pulled himself to his feet and turned the doorknob.

The door was locked.

He pounded feebly on the door. After a moment, a panel slid back. He saw a man staring at him; then the panel slid shut. He waited for the door to open. It didn't open. Minutes passed, and still it didn't open. What were they waiting for inside? What was wrong? Barrent tried to pound on the door again, lost his balance and fell to the ground. He rolled over and looked despairingly at the locked door. Then he lost consciousness.

When he came to, Barrent found himself lying on a couch. Two men were massaging his arms and legs, and beneath him he could feel the warmth of heating pads. Peering anxiously at him was the broad, swarthy face of Uncle Ingemar.

"Feeling better now?" Uncle Ingemar asked.

"I think so," Barrent said. "Why did you take so long opening the door?"

"We almost didn't open it at all," the priest told him. "It's against the law to aid strangers in distress. Since you hadn't as yet joined the Coven, you were technically still a stranger."

"Then why did you let me in?"

"My assistant noticed that we had an even number of worshipers. We require an odd number, preferably ending in three. Where the sacred and the profane laws are in conflict, the profane must yield. So we let you in despite the government ruling."

"It's a ridiculous ruling," Barrent said.

"Not really. Like most of the laws of Omega, it is designed to keep the population down. Omega is an extremely barren planet, you know. The constant arrival of new prisoners keeps swelling the population, to the enormous disadvantage of the older inhabitants. Ways and means must be sought to dispose of the excess newcomers."

"It isn't fair," Barrent said.

"You'll change your mind when you become an older inhabitant," Ingemar said. "And by your tenacity, I'm sure you'll become one."

"Maybe," Barrent said. "But what happened? The temperature must have dropped nearly a hundred degrees in fifteen minutes."

"A hundred and eight degrees to be exact," Uncle Ingemar said. "It's really very simple. Omega is a planet which revolves eccentrically around a double star system. Further instability, I'm told, comes from the planet's peculiar physical make-up — the placement of mountains and seas. The result is a uniformly and dramatically bad climate characterized by sudden violent temperature changes."

The assistant, a small, self-important fellow, said, "It has been calculated that Omega is at the outer limits of the planets which can support human life without gross artificial aids. If the fluctuations between hot and cold were any more violent, all human life here would be wiped out."

"It's the perfect punitive world," Uncle Ingemar said proudly. "Experienced residents sense when a temperature change is about to take place and get indoors."

"It's — hellish," Barrent said, at a loss for words.

"That describes it perfectly," the priest said. "It is hellish, and therefore perfect for the worship of The Black One. If you're feeling better now, Citizen Barrent, shall we proceed with services?"

Except for a touch of frostbite on his toes and fingers, Barrent was all right. He nodded, and followed the priest and the worshipers into the main part of the Coven.

After what he had been through, the Black Mass was necessarily an anticlimax. In his warmly heated pew, Barrent drowsed through Uncle Ingemar's sermon on the necessary performance of everyday evil.

The worship of Evil, Uncle Ingemar said, should not be reserved solely for Monday nights. On the contrary! The knowledge and performance of evil should suffuse one's daily life. It was not given to everyone to be a great sinner; but no one should be discouraged by that. Little acts of badness performed over a lifetime accumulated into a sinful whole most pleasing to The Black One. No one should forget that some of the greatest sinners, even the demoniac saints themselves, often had humble beginnings. Did not Thrastus start as a humble shopkeeper, cheating his customers of a portion of rice? Who would have expected that simple man to develop into the Red Slayer of Thorndyke Lane? And who could have imagined that Dr. Louen, son of a dockhand, would one day become the world's foremost authority on the practical applications of torture? Perseverance and piety had allowed those men to rise above their natural handicaps to a pre-eminent position at the right hand of The Black One. And it proved, Uncle Ingemar said, that Evil was the business of the poor as well as the rich.

That ended the sermon. Barrent awoke momentarily when the sacred symbols were brought out and displayed to the reverent congregation — a red-handled dagger, and a plaster toad. Then he dozed again through the slow inscribing of the magical pentagon.

At last the ceremony neared its end. The names of the interceding evil demons were read — Bael, Forcas, Buer, Marchocias, Astaroth, and Behemoth. A prayer was read to ward off the effects of Good. And Uncle Ingemar apologized for not having a virgin to sacrifice on the Red Altar.

"Our funds were not sufficient," he said, "for the purchase of a government-certified peon virgin. However, I am sure we will be able to perform the full ceremony next Monday. My assistant will now pass among you…."

The assistant carried around the black-rimmed collection plate. Like the other worshipers, Barrent contributed generously. It seemed wise to do so. Uncle Ingemar was clearly annoyed at not having a virgin to sacrifice. If he became a little angrier, he might take it into his head to sacrifice one of the congregation, virgin or not.

Barrent didn't stay for the choir singing or the community dancing. When the evening worship was finished, he poked his head cautiously out the door. The temperature had gone up to the seventies, and the frost was already melted from the ground. Barrent shook hands with the priest and hurried home.

Chapter Six | The Status Civilization | Chapter Eight