Wherefore by Their Fruits » John C. Wright's Journal (2024)

By John C. Wright

      • 01 The Rustics
      • 02 The Lavandiere
      • 03 The Ferule
      • 04 The Fescennine
      • 05 The Tryst
      • 06 The Humdudgeon
      • 07 The Threaping
      • 08 The Chartel
      • 09 The Ravin
      • 10 The Standgale
      • 11 The Megrims
      • 12 The Grimoire
      • 13 The Apparitor
      • 14 The Ballaragg
      • 15 The Predicant
      • 16 The Snaphance
      • 17 The Shriving
      • 18 The Query
      • 19 The Quelling
      • 20 The Creance

    *** *** ***

    1. The Rustics

    Space stank.

    The smell of raw sewerage squirmed in Piter Princox’s nostrils, tempting him to vomit. His goggles were on — someone was always watching — so he choked back the urge.

    He wondered if there were a way out.

    It was not outerspace itself that stank, of course, but the amidships greenspace of the generation ship Perfection of Humanity. The greenspace was a great cylinder of farmland that reached from underfoot, climbing up to his left and right, to form a cloud-dappled green and gold and blue pattern of arbors, pastures, croplands and fishponds in a great arch overhead. Each lake was a dimple in the hull directly opposite a corresponding hillock. Hills and lakes were hence evenly spaced around the twelve-mile circumference.

    These hills were richly crowned with fir and evergreen, and fringed with stands of feathery bamboo, which swayed whenever a cool wind came from the aft ventilation towers. Most of the towers had been silent for years, and the air was mostly hot and still, the bamboo fronds immobile.

    Brightness was in the fields on his left hand, curving upward and away. The fields and groves curving up to his right were still dark, except for one spot where the dot of an illegal lantern, perhaps of some poacher, glinted like an orange firefly.

    Princox photo-caught the location with a click of his goggles, thought a moment, grinned to himself, and then deleted the image file from his goggles without reporting the sighting.

    More ratings for him if he alone collected bounties on nobodies and scofflaws. And he needed the ratings badly.

    He did not have his snaphance with him, not for a call of this sort, not this watch. In his hand was a telescoping wand called a ferule, light and flexible enough to switch a pregnant girl painfully, without leaving stripes, or deliver an electric shock. It was also useful to have in hand when venturing into farm areas, to test unsure footing, or climb slopes. Few from the warrens were used to walking on soil and grasses, or among treacherous rice paddies.

    Reveille was breaking. In the distance, the Morning Watch was sounding Four Bells. It was a Sunday, in fact, so neither cloud nor fog were due. The superstructure everyone simply called the sun was a twenty-mile long shaft of hydrogen fusion energy prisoned in a transparent tube running fore to aft along the world’s axis.

    The shadow of the hemicylindrical shade circling the sun was even now passing away from this area. Like a drawn curtain, this terminator could be seen travelling from deiseil to widdershins or, to use the old words, west to east, swooping over the fields and arbors about him and travelling rapidly up the righthand curve, a retreating tide of shadow. In the near distance, a rooster crowed.

    Ahead of him, the linear sun pointed toward the Abaft Mountains, a circle of slopes made of an outer ring of pinegrove-crowned foothills, then a circle of snowy crags, then a central field of blue hullmetal at the weightless center.

    There was said to be the Seventh City, the Warren of the Engineers, whose business it was to mind the fusion drive, and tend the Bussard ram that gathered gassy fuel from interstellar space. The High Country of the Officers, directly opposite, was said to be above the Prow Mountains. They did not commingle with the passengers, whom they called ‘cargo’, except upon occasion to abduct some lissome maiden for a nightwatch’s pleasure.

    Princox loved the sight of the snowy mountains. As a boy, he always wanted to visit them. The Prow Mountains were but a mile’s hike from the habitat ring where he berthed: but it was forbidden ground, reserved for those with high ratings, so it might as well have been as distant as the fabled stars, never seen in their secret fields beneath the hull.

    As the dawnline passed, and the vertical rays of an eternal noon shot down, a flock of meadowlarks flew upward from the hedgerows, singing, fluttering their wings ever more languidly as they gained altitude and lost weight. High above them, near the unbearable brightness of the linear sun, a hawk hung in zero-gee, wings motionless. At least, he thought it was a hawk.

    The sight of these high things filled his heart with a strange, warm feeling. (He thought it strange that he had never been taught the name for this feeling.)

    But when he brought his eyes down, he saw before him, half buried, where the stairheads, trapdoors, and siloes of some crappy farming village poked up through the soil, and the nameless feeling vanished.

    The womenfolk of the village were grayhaired and crookbacked mongrels and molls with pallid or murky skins, betraying Anglo or Afro origins. These were trooping from the sump toward the fields, with all the vile contents of their chamberpots and latrines carried in backpacks or large jars balanced atop Dutch-braids. The smell of human excrement clung to everyone.

    Disgusting. Had it not been for his selfish genes, he would have stayed in his quarters in the Male Excess Warrens, doing something useful, like gambling for vodka tokens or arranging co*ckfights.

    Had it not been for Gaud.

    A winterfield was deiseil of him, cold beneath its opaque tarp, and a springfield to the widdershins, hot beneath its greenhouse tarp. There, drudges with hoes ground nightsoil into the soil.

    A path between fields led past a muddy irrigation canal where an antique millwheel loomed motionless above an even more antique powerhouse, now dark and silent. A footbridge, broken in it middle parts, connected hither and thither banks. Beyond was the malodorous village.

    With a flourish of his ferule stick and a rustle of his filmy cleancloak, Princox marched onward, holding an oxygen-handkerchief before his nose.

    *** *** ***

    2. The Lavandiere

    An old crone was at the collapsed footbridge, washing blood out of a man’s shirt in the sluggish, brownish water. The information that flashed across the inside of Princox’ goggles gave her name and ratings, height and weight and purchasing records, dietary restrictions, emergency contact information, a told a bit of the sad story of her three previous husbands, the last one of which had frittered away all her hard-won earnings on doxies and drink, and beat her, before leaving her to take up with a catamite half his age. Old-timer files were always larded with such info-floods. He winked it away, unread.

    She glanced up and blinked at him with eyes as watery and dull as a fishpond on Rainday. “Bit soft to be a soldier, is not my lad? What might your name be?”

    Because she was wearing goggles, he knew she knew his name and bio. But among rustics, bad old habits from Mad Old Earth still lingered.

    How rude! He wondered if a slap from his ferule might make her jump and dance and wail, to let him pick up some ratings by downloading the goggle recording to nodes where those who enjoyed such things gathered. Everyone loved seeing the old ones suffer. Hadn’t they made this world?

    He brushed the thought away. The old gambler, Phthagan, who taught him how to cut purses and pick pockets also told him always to be sweet to crones. They made easy marks.

    For another thing, beneath the wrinkles and crusts of dirt, her skin was pale olive like a thoroughbred, and her epicanthic eye-fold bespoke Sino blood. Odd and sad to see someone so high born in such a low place, doing laundry.

    He said, “Flesh and blood I am, and no soldier. This is a proctors’ uniform. I am here to herd strays, with soft words or mayhap hard stripes, but not to shed blood. Locate for me a Noncompliant named Syren, out of Quail by Merry Andrew.”

    The old woman shook her head. “A fay woman! We have naught to do with her! Naught to do! I have never heard her name before! And Merry Andrew is not her father. You’ve been lied to.”

    Princox felt annoyed. Surely the old washerwoman knew that even a temporary proctor’s brevet gave his goggles the right to look through her goggle records?

    But a moment of pity overcame him. Floating in his goggle view above her sad, wrinkled face was her bank account and medical calendar. She was a sesquicentenarian, over a hundred and fifty earthyears old. The ship had still been in the acceleration half of her journey when this hag was born. With her low rating, and correspondingly low income (for nonconformists, scolds, cranks and scofflaws were not allowed to accumulate undue wealth), she would live to see another decade only if her fellow villagers were generous with their charity, and gave funds toward her geriatric treatments.

    With one foot already over the euthanasia deadline, why should she fear any ratings loss? Keeping on good terms with her neighbors might be more important to her, unfuturistic as that sounded.

    Princox said, “I mean young Syren no ill. A gentle word into her ear will put her on the path to human perfection! I mean but to speak!”

    “What you mean, means none. All these things are written ere they’re done. Wail and weep ought thou for thee, for your bloody murder yet to be!”

    “Dam o’ Bedlam! What patter is this — ?”

    “Treason foul and treachery, a hidden dart in dark I see! Her brother slain, and slain by thee! A murderer, a killer without shame, thus to glorify your father’s name!”

    He opened his mouth to say that no stray lowlife has a brother, nor did anyone but the most highly rated of the most eugenically-prized bloodlines. The one-child policy saw to that. The idea that he would go through his mother’s old sex records to find the name of the man who spermed his mother was madness.

    Princox closed his mouth without speaking. Madness or feigned madness, it did not matter. He would waste time and perhaps lose ratings arguing with a zany.

    Instead he looked at the old lady’s records of her last conversation with Syren. The young lady had appeared in a hooded mantle, domino mask, and high-heeled cothurn boots, perhaps in vain attempt to fool facial and posture recognition. She had been bartering a large jar of honey, which she carried on her head. The recorded image showed her walking down the curve of the world out from the retreating line of night, graceful as birch tree swaying: the girl came from the widdershins of here.

    That way he walked without a word of farewell to the old woman, wading the watercourse with a grimace of distaste.

    *** *** ***

    3. The Ferule

    Wishy-Loo had explained it all to him two watches ago. “The ship enforces our laws without fear or favor, and so can never be corrupted. But who wants such strict rule? A word now might save a girl from a thousand whippings later. One word.”

    And with this, he handed him a ferule from the arms locker.

    “They call the lash sad*stic.” Princox had said, reluctant to pick the slim metal wand.

    “Who does? Report them, if they do!” roared Wish-Loo jovially. “Quench disloyal talk! How can men be free if they are allowed to say any nonsense that pops into their heads? Besides, we occupy the sole a stable society humanity ever engineered into being! A perfect polis! A population plateau! Unimaginable social ills are thus eluded. Only what is necessary to preserve the peace and progress is allowed.”

    “Still. Beating girls. Especially pregnant ones…”

    “They are not pregnant! What is in a mother’s womb is not human until she officially says so. That is her sacred right to choose. So the laws have always held!”

    Princox said, “Now, see here, no woman in this ship ever had a child of her own free choice, without permission. That is what a population plateau means: births are licensed.”

    “But her choice makes the child human! Humanity is not a biological trait, is it? Does it have weight and substance, does it occupy the breast, the foot, the head? No! It is transcendental! A baby is human if the mother so choses: otherwise, it is but a fetus, nor is it murder to slaughter it. That is why we allow for postnatal abortions also, particularly for hidden birth defects later years reveal. Child licenses are so hard to get, it would be gross unfairness to not allow a mother to abort an unruly child and try again. The ship’s brain allows it, so it must be logical!”

    Princox frowned. “If you say so, but how is it her choice, if she needs a license?”

    “She decides if her child is human. But we decide if she is a mother. There is no conflict.”

    “But wait — A mother with no child or a child with no mother is a paradox — ”

    “Futurians are evolved beyond any fear of paradox! Come now, lad!”

    “I am baffled and bedazzled by your word-play, sir. What is the point?”

    “The point is necessity! Necessity rules aboard this ship! We must beat women in the name of equal rights!”

    “I do not quite see how — ”

    “Adopt Futurian logic, lad! It is simple enough: The mother cannot be given any choice to bear, not until the censors count, and say there are resources enough to fill one more hungry mouth. Right?”

    “Mm…”

    “And, of course, not until the eugenicists say the new babe is better than whoever it replaces. Without that, we slide backward, and evolution is reversed! Do you want to return to mad, sad, bad old Earth? Right again?”

    “Mm…”

    “So, all women in our society are free to make any choice they wish, except the wrong one. Therefore, we beat them. What other punishment is there? Exile? Solitary confinement? We are aboard a starship. Everyone is in solitary confinement!”

    Princox shook his head. “No whips.”

    Wishy-Loo narrowed his eyes. “Maybe I will give you the logic-chopping assignment instead.”

    The crystal rod-logic diamonds that grew in the ship’s neural core from time to time had to be pared back by a technician in a clean-suit worming in zero-gee through convoluted intestine-shaped access tubes, using a scraping tool small as a thumbnail. The logic diamond was a submicroscopic mechanical calculation system made of molecular components held in a carbon-crystal matrix.

    Such diamonds were also worth a bundle on the black market, but since any tiniest shard might contain shadow memories of forbidden information, the technician had to be microscopically strip-searched coming off shift. Princox met Gaud, a saucy and outspoken blonde, while she was searching his body cavities, and, one hasty seduction later, she was willing to let him carry away enough contraband to make the painful, low-paying job actually worthwhile. During his first week with Gaud, flush with his gains, he had been able to show her a posh time. How long ago that seemed now.

    “No more logic chopping, please,” muttered Princox.

    “Take the ferule!” Wishy-Loo insisted. “Most molls and scofflaws cower at the sight of it: our lyceum trains schoolgirls to be particularly craven and weak-minded by teaching them nothing but self-esteem. And thanks to the one-child policy, they have no brothers to protect them, no uncles, no cousins, and so menfolk to them are always fearsome and unknown things.”

    “I’ll not hit a frail. Why not beat the fathers? Rutting with a fertile sow breaks the population laws as well.”

    “If we control the girls, what do we care what boys do? Take the ferule. Dial the shock to the lowest setting, if you like. See reason! You have a silver tongue. You rap sheet proves how persuasive you can be! With this in hand, you will be reminded how important this is for her, as well as for you. This case is bigger than it looks … much bigger. No, forget I said that.”

    *** *** ***

    4. The Fescennine

    He knew from reading old books about old earth that bees prospered in dappled sunlight, preferring a place both with a wind and with a windbreak, preferably with water at hand.

    Princox peered up the curving wall of the world. He could see which bamboo stands swayed and which were still, and where the tree groves were. The farther from him they were, the more of a birdeye’s view he had. The great cylinder was twelve miles in circumference, so anything farther off than a mile or two was displayed to his eyes like a map.

    He saw pheasants in the trees in the middle distance, and rabbits moving through the meadow grass near at hand. His fingers itched for his snaphance. This was a snaplock-operated pneumatic, that could shoot a variety of small-game stings, some heavy enough to be used for fowling. The low-velocity stings could not damage machinery in the case of a missed target.

    He spied an arbor with a flowering meadow midmost, on the leeward side of a hill whose wind ventilation still worked. A fishpond round as a silver coin was mid-meadow, glinting in the light of daywatch: it also happened to be the spot where he had previously spied the glimmer of a lantern.

    So! Not a poacher. Something else. And to judge from the rating numbers he could earn by proctoring the scofflaw back into compliance, she was something the ship’s system regarded as a greater threat than a poacher.

    He trudged along between the fallow fields, white with hoarfrost, and followed a canal beneath grape trellises toward the hill he had spotted. The line of daybreak moved quicker than he: the night groves were lit by the time he came to the foot of the hill.

    The smells were left behind. He grinned, wondering if old Earth had really ever been blessed with such a clean perfume as the smell of springfield flowers at first watch. Had it really all been destroyed when Earth went senile? He was not sure he believed that old story.

    As he trudged, Princox wondered why anyone in his right mind would venture out into the great, black nothing between the stars. Space was a void, a negation, a nothingness, a vacuum. And, as he half recalled from some half-forgotten lesson in History Correction he had once been assigned as punishment duty, had not some old, outdated, junk-gene Mutt back on Mad Earth written that nature abhorred a vacuum? Maybe there was some wisdom in the old, mad words of the old, mad world after all.

    Princox laughed to himself at the insolent thought, then in fear cast his gaze over either shoulder quickly. It was a silly, automatic reaction: Way out here in the rustic farmlands, there was no one to goggle him, or bring him up for questioning before the Laughter Board. Here, in the groves, far from the farmhands, a man could laugh as long and loud as he liked at anything he liked.

    That reminded him: he had not seen his ratings today. Or that week, for that matter. He squinted to bring them up, blinking red numerals in the corner of his goggles. They were low enough as it was, between his blue eyes and his brawling, his unthrift and insolence, impiety and his impish humor.

    Even a he looked, one of the numbers in his cooperative spirit stat clicked a digit lower: forgetting to check your ratings daily was a sign of indifference.

    His low numbers were the reason why he volunteered to come to the stinking farmlands in the first place. Part of the reason, in any case. The other part was the fair young Gaud Fandangle.

    Trudging onward, he composed a jingle in her dishonor, which he sang aloud in a lusty voice:

    As I wander from leman to lurdan,
    I wonder what women need
    Each yearns the world to burden
    And to bring forth new mouths to feed.

    Suddenly from the green leaves came forth a voice as clear and beautiful as running water, as bright as a diamond in the light:

    When comes a Peterman eager to breed,
    Or Picaroon pure maidenhood to soil,
    No men dare ask men what men need:
    To bring forth new hands to toil.

    Astonished and voiceless, Princox thrust the leaves aside, battled the bush, and forced his way to the other side. He stood panting and staring.

    Here was loveliness.

    *** *** ***

    5. The Tryst

    The girl stood wading among the reeds and bright flowers of the water’s edge. What wet drudgery she was doing he did not see, but she carried herself with the quiet dignity of a princess from an old tale, the luminous inner beauty of some pagan goddess of springtide and childbirth.

    Her nude legs were bright with moisture, her skirts hiked up about her hips, blouse plastered wetly against her curves, concealing little.

    Her hair was black as starless space said to lurk beneath the outer hull, piled atop her head to show the swanlike curve of her neck. The gleaming black locks were held in place by chopsticks, and she also wore an anadem of pink and scarlet blooms.

    Her eyes were dark as agates and bright as stars. These were long eyes with long lashes, tilted, with an epicanthic eyefold.

    She saw his bold gaze, and stepped back from him, atop a tussock of grass no wider than a dinner plate in the midst of the water, and modestly lowered her skirt hem to hide knee and ankle. He could still see her naked feet among the little grass blades: they were small and well formed.

    He saw then that she wore no goggles. This made her eyes look larger and lovelier than those of any other woman’s.

    Her gaze was strangely bright, direct, and penetrating, like the gazes of angels seen in old, forbidden books.

    Most people had glass layer preventing the lights of the world from reflecting in their irises, or they were habitually distracted, gazes ever unfixed, by text and marginalia flashing over and around the faces of whomever they addressed. This was surely part of why her eyes were so fascinating, for she stared at him as if she truly wished to see him. But there was something else as well: the presence of modesty, the absence of evasiveness and self-doubt.

    She dropped her gaze and curtseyed. “If I may introduce myself, I am Syren Erasmus Anne Quail, at your service. To what do I owe the honor?”

    The emotions that boiled in his blood were strange to him, and yet, somehow, all too familiar. It was what he had felt for Gaud Fandangle, and every other girl since Sexual Self-Actualization classes in grammar school.

    In the climate controlled corridors of the warrens, girls young and fit enough to be photogenic wore transparent, pinch-waisted jumpsuits or filmy see-throughs, or nothing at all, adorning busts and crotches with neon-bright flashes of self-luminous paint, as a tasteful way to emphasize their sensuality and show their sex-pride.

    In a society where everyone wore goggles on his nose, being photogenic was an easy way for young women to gather quick ratings. Eugenics control looked for health and fitness when passing out mating assignments, and after several generations, rare beauties were commonplace.

    But this girl was actually showing less of herself even than the average hag. How could she be more attractive, by trying to attract him less?

    The passion afflicting him now was different from the normal rutting emotion he felt upon seeing shapely derriere or deep cleavage. It was more like that strange, high, nameless sensation the sight of birds soaring against the sky-fields had elevated in him.

    Yet it was not so different. He remembered how he had been thrown from middle weight warrens nearer the axis to heavier, low-rating warrens in the days after his mother was taken from him. Her newest boyfriend had beaten her, and the neighborhood board had penalized her for attempting to fend him off with a kitchen knife, declaring her unfit to raise a minor: and so Princox was sent to a cheaper billet.

    Here, the aeration would frequently fail, and the heat of crowded bodies would fill corridor and cabin, he would stare at images of snowy mountains, imagining the coolness of feathery, frozen water. He would imagine his mother returning, and taking him up the mountains, where his footsteps would get lighter with every step, and cooler.

    He also remembered, year after, as a youth, helping a bookie rig a lottery. His pay-off was a one-use travel pass to the Prow Mountains in Officer’s Country, where he could climb the foothills to the snowline, just like an Earthman of old. It was his one brush with the high life. The real snow was cold and shocking and wonderful, far beyond what the images could tell.

    This was like that. Whatever had pulled his heart toward Gaud was false. This was real.

    The girl spoke again, her voice surprisingly deep for one so slight, in tones like cooing woodwinds. “Are you come to catch me as a thief, young would-be robot? For I see I have stolen your words away. I plead my innocence, meaning you but good.”

    “As for words,” he said, “there are none to encompass beauty pure. Let man return to the brute state of beast, who cannot sing your praises in words fitting, high and fine enough! You speak me good in words, but do me woe, for I am wounded mortally.”

    “A bold assault on my part! But I am weaponless and meek. I see no blood.”

    “Nature, and your own sweet soul, arms and equips you as with a legion’s arsenal, young miss. My wound is deeper, being invisible, beyond the reach of all physic but yours: here is my heart, I am struck through!”

    She smiled sadly. “Or in your vanity. Come, Proctor, I know how this goes. You are here to order me to comply with my medication. I refuse. Go your way.”

    *** *** ***

    6. The Humdudgeon

    Princox sighed, for he had been enjoying the intoxication of saying such wild words so freely to so beautiful a girl, the fairest he had ever seen. He did not know, yet, whether he believed half of what he said — or whether he said but half of what he believed? That thought, like the blazing column of the sun always directly overhead, was too bright to behold. He pushed it aside.

    Now it was time for a more mundane exercise. Whatever persuasive manner he could muster, he had to urge the girl to conform. Usually, girl this age, raised in dorm or creche without fathers, were eager for a man with a deep and sober voice to tell them what to do.

    A wee bit of browbeating was usually all it took. After all, why should woman want babies? It decreased the female power in society, and robbed them of their ability to select their own roles in life.

    He said, “Population control makes contraception mandatory. It is for the greater good.”

    “Of old, the wise books called sterility a curse,” she said lightly, “How can you call it a blessing?”

    “Books written in the childhood of history are filled with childish blatherskite. Left to themselves, men will multiply beyond their resources, and starve. Malthus proved it so.”

    “Will they? If men are never left to themselves, how is one to know?”

    He frowned. Was she being wayward with him? Every schoolchild knew the clear and plain narrative on which society was based.

    Perhaps, like him, she had been lax at lessons. He said, “When the Future of Humanity Society saw that superstition and backwardness were fated to overwhelm Old Earth, they funded the construction and quest of this great ship. A new world to be founded, seated solidly on scientific principles! Improvements in biotechnology, the doubling of human lifespans, made a rational approach imperative!”

    “Rational?” She raised an eyebrow.

    He sensed he was losing ground, but was not sure why. Princox pressed on bravely. “The principles of Futurism were clear: perfect freedom in all things for all, save where it imposed on others; a population plateau to be maintained; the madness of unplanned reproduction to be controlled; resources to be distributed equitably; vegetarianism and nudism to be encouraged. Scientific reason to reign paramount!”

    She giggled. She raised a slender hand to hide her smile, a gesture Princox had never seen a living woman do. It seemed old-fashioned, strangely delicate.

    “Indeed, life in a miniature, artificial world, can function no other way!” he persisted, warming with false enthusiasm. “It was foreseen that shipboard life would readily habituate the generations to the restrictions a population plateau required. Everything else, the form of government, what culture, what institutions, we would take from Earth or leave behind, the passengers would organize themselves for themselves, without any interference from the ship’s machine intelligence.”

    She said, “We have had Futurians among us since the Albigensians, or since Eden. They are not new. A thousand utopias had been propounded on Earth. Rational? Then why do they fail, one and all?”

    “Sabotage. Recalcitrance. Selfishness.”

    “And are we aboard the Perfection so perfect, that we are free of those?”

    “Strict rule will hold all to strict obedience.”

    “Yet you promise perfect freedom.”

    “Not in all things! Some reluctant elements must be, perhaps, dragged unwillingly into the promised tomorrow, but the tomorrow must come nonetheless. Wise leadership forbids folly! After all, just because a baby screams at birth, does not mean we let it climb back in the darkness of the womb!”

    “A very undue metaphor to use considering your mission, Proctor. You say wise leaders forbid what bars the bliss to come: but what prevents self-will or selfishness among them?”

    “With an artificial intellect guiding the ship, whatever the collective decides, is enforced by an incorruptible robotic corps. Here on this ship, there is no escape, nowhere to flee. All saboteurs and vandals are found and corrected. It is perfect system. Why object? Why resist?”

    “I do not wish to be sterile.” She spoke with infinite patience.

    “No one may bear a child unless a death makes room — what point fertility until then? It is but a monthly vexation to you.”

    “There is room aplenty in infinite space, and resources without let, for the ultimate resource is the human imagination. It is the one resource the powers that be ruling this ship constrain — what you lightly name wise leadership.

    “As for your contraceptives,” she continued, “such chemicals warp the female instincts, unbalance emotions, poison love, degrades sex, humiliate all women. Would you turn us all into cheap, weak-limbed, longhaired mockeries and mimickers of men?”

    “Well, let us be reasonable. You are free to do, say, or believe anything you wish, provided it does not impose on society. But beliefs that threaten the social vision obviously cannot be permitted. Untoward speech spreads mistrust, which causes disloyalty. To speak your mind is like crying fire in a crowded theater!”

    “I did not speak my mind. You came here to talk to me.”

    “To stand silent is even worse! It is tacit consent. It is a trumpet blast calling for rioters to gather!”

    “My wish to be left in peace promotes riots?”

    Princox continued in a patient voice, “With contraception, free love is possible, between any partners of any kind. Experimentation and exploration of the widest parameter of libido becomes the order of the day! Endless ecstasy awaits! What other option be there?”

    “Of old, the books called this unchaste and impure.”

    “Of old, men thought the world was flat, or souls possessed free will! Would you return to mad old Earth? The Futurians were right to burn all such antique books at lift off.”

    “Except Malthus.”

    “What?”

    An Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798. Is his work not an antique? Why didn’t the Futurians burn it?”

    And when he had no answer for that, she said gently, “Come! Tell me truly: If our fathers were so wrong about so much, and we so wise, then why is our present world so unhappy?”

    The question flummoxed him. He knew there was a simple answer that everyone knew, yet, somehow, he could not bring it to mind.

    He said stubbornly, “Ten million can live in our enclosed ecology: would you let the numbers grow unchecked? Even if the laws are a little harsh here and there, why not obey? Shipmates and bunkmates adore a girl of good cheer. Why be troublesome? Why be quarrelsome? The ship provides air and light, sustenance and entertainment. She requires so little in return: cooperation, compliance, harmony. Take your medicine! Life becomes easy.”

    “I do not seek an easy life, but a good one,” she said.

    Princox felt his temper rising. “What are you talking about? What is wrong with you? Does every reflective surface flee at your approach? Do all mirrors break? Your every inch radiates high breeding and noblest blood! Genetic flaws you clearly have none: the eugenicists will jump you to the front of the line, as soon as a slot is available, and, indeed, the whole council will come kneel and beg for you to gift the next generation! And I can think of any number of councilors, correctors, and delators, that I will gladly euthanize with a pillow to make room. You will to be a mother? Some lucky man you fancy? Do it in due order, by bending the rules to your advantage. First, we need money for bribes.”

    “I have no groom, and none to court me,” she said. “That is not my reason.”

    “Then what? What reason? Why defy authority?”

    “What authority? The current Captain killed his father for the post. Why obey?”

    “They seek the goals and follow the principles of the Futurian society, which launched this ship three generations ago! The Futurians made this world!”

    “They made this ship, yes. Who made the everything outside?”

    “The outer world is natural. The stars and planets are not handiworks. No maker made.”

    “Why? Because they do not malfunction are often as things in our little world? That would seem to argue the presence of a maker, not his absence, and one more skilled than ours.”

    “An illogical conclusion!”

    “Not everyone finds it so. Do you know what happens to self-aware machines whose intelligence quotients are permitted to rise above human norms? You have heard of the Saint Isidore effect? No?”

    “The history of Earth is but man’s list of failures and false starts. When we reach the V376 Pegasi and terraform the virginal world of Osiris…”

    “… Into a wasteland. If childbirth is wickedness, colonization is also.”

    “No, wait, that is not the same…”

    “Must we continue this script? We both know how it plays out. You will try flattery, and threats, and when that fails, the whip. There is many a boy these days who swarm the nodes where such images are posted.”

    *** *** ***

    7. The Threaping

    The thought that Wishy-Loo, later, would be able to tap into his goggle records, and, with his squinty, unclean eyes, should see the lovely Syren as Princox here and now saw her, was suddenly intolerable.

    Princox tore off his goggles and whirled them about his head, and cast them into the deepest part of the fishpond. At the same moment, he tossed the ferule behind him, where it lodged in the branches of a purple myrtle tree.

    “Your image will not be disgraced! Ten thousand deaths I wish upon myself ere even a hairstrand of your head be bruised!” Now he plunged into the water, was came up past thigh to waist, and he pushed through the miry mass of the lakebed, that he might come before her tussock. As if in alarm, she inched back, standing on her tiptoes as the ripples he tossed up sloshed over her feet, and she held her skirts daintily in her hands.

    Her knelt, and felt the muddy bottom clutch at his knees. “I came here as a proctor to correct you, yes. But let me stay as your knight, your protector, your slave. You must be the proctor and correct me!”

    Her eye glinted with surprise at his exuberance, her small smile displayed wry dimples, but yet her voice was distant and cool as a clarinet.

    “Correct you? Why? What evil do you do?”

    “I know not, but all I know it must be great, or such great sadness would not afflict me. The misery of the thought of seeing you no more is too fierce a penalty! If you are proctor to me, you will tell me how to correct my life.”

    She looked down at him, her eyes growing solemn and still as deep waters. “Foreswear futurism. Forswear this false ship and her lewd doctrines. Be baptized. Eat the bread and drink the wine.”

    He struggled to stand, but the oozy mud clamped his knees too sternly. He thrashed and sloshed a moment. “You are of the Cult! You believe in Earth!”

    She knelt down, speaking softly and earnestly to him. “Here and there are glasses found intact, still tied into the ship’s core functions. No one repairs them. Can’t you guess why? The radio house is a core function, and still makes regular reports of lasercasts from Earth, sent one hundred fifty years ago, reaching us now. Earth lives.”

    He was mesmerized by her face for a moment, forgetting himself. Then the outrageous nature of her claim sunk in, and he shook his head. He snapped, “Impossible! Mathematically impossible! Malthus proved that ever increasing population would always outpace its food supply! Earth surely perished, for the planet forbade free love! Would you punish the tribade, the pederast, the onanist, the oedipalist?”

    “Punish? In this world, I am not even allowed to pity them.”

    “Their sex-play is whelp-free and wholesome, for it does not threaten the ecosphere! Your Cult does not even allow for contraception!”

    She said, “I have heard the Voice of Earth. Ever rising population increases their prosperity without limit. It has not destroyed them. Each birth is a new pair of hands to work. There was no cataclysmic race-war, no Darwinian death-struggle between Sino, Anglo, and Afro. There was no world-ending jihad: the Mohammedans slowly but surely converted, and kissed the cross, and Jews and Witches as well, in droves. One, true, apostolic, and universal church there holds sway from pole to pole. What there is no more of there is Futurians.”

    He said, “No doubt it is one radio tower, rust and tilted over the ruins of the Vatican, pretending their radioactive hellscape of craters retains life! They merely send out dreams and deliriums to dishearten us.”

    “An expensive prank, if so, and one with no earthly reward.” She rose to her feet. “You may return to your masters and report that I am too proud a maiden to be cajoled. The Church straightly forbids her daughters render themselves closed to the gift of life. I cannot take the assigned aborticides and contraceptives. Your masters seek a population plateau, which is an unreality. I seek the kingdom of heaven, which is true and eternal. I cannot follow you down your way. Can you follow me up mine?”

    And with this, she skipped away from rock to rock, tussock to tussock, toes never brushing the water, while he wrestled with the mud gripping his knees and ankles.

    By the time he had clawed himself upright, soaked with sticky mess, she had passed between the bamboo stands, and was gone.

    *** *** ***

    8. The Chartel

    It had been the day before, between Eight Bells of the First Watch and One Bell of the Middle, when Gaud had severed her ties with him.

    There had been no hard words, no tears, no strange hysterics, such as he was all too used to from girls.

    They had been lying on her futon. Her mini-apartment was high enough in the stack that the edge was off the gravity: just enough for slight lightness, enough buoyancy to know how the higher-ups lived.

    Her verdict was whispered as pillow talk after love-play. There was no hate in her heart, no drama, just a calculation as cold as Mother Nature herself.

    “We live in a coffin,” she said softly, in a haunted voice. “A twenty-mile-long coffin, two miles across, with the main drive running down the middle. How big must it be before it is no long called a coffin? There is no way out.”

    “There’s space outside, or so I hear.” He said airily.

    “A horrid void, blank as death.”

    “There is starlight, gas, micrometeorites … and, uh … suchlike geegaws. The ramscoop fields take in hydrogen — that is what keeps the drive lit.”

    “We live trapped in this world our parents made, a pitfall they built and fell into,” she said. “All the link of the fetters were forged by the Futurians when the ship was built, before we launched. All the equations were written. Who will be born, who die.”

    Princox said, “Vex not yourself, pigsney! Have I not wit enough to connive my way to the best hammock, to get the biscuit with the muchliest gravy? I am a little low on scratch, at the moment, my little giglot, but I have a flimflam I am contriving that will net us plenty — ”

    “Then what?” she snapped. “I want a future.”

    “I say let the morrow mind itself! In the long run, we are all dead, so why fret?”

    She lowered her voice again, and spoke scarcely above a whisper. “No. My life is a snare. I cannot live for me. I want a future. I want a child. I want out.”

    “That’s crazy talk. You got me, baby!”

    A note of sarcasm trickled into her tone. “I want a child younger than you, and more sote.”

    Princox laughed and said, “You wee puteyn! I have too much co*ckered you, and now you have a head like a cobloaf, swollen and misshapen! You have no thoughts in that head without some man to put them there!”

    “You speak sooth,” she said smiling, “And were always smoothed-tongued. Yes, I want a strong man to lead. What woman does not?”

    Princox thought that was a surrender, but, even as she spoke, she rose, and donned a simar of finest silk, and departed.

    He should have noted that fineness, and known. Princox bought no gifts for Gaud unless he first borrowed money from her to do it.

    Princox had time only to find her hidden bottle of bracket and gulp down half a jack when she returned. Lumbering in her footstep, like a cowherdess leading a bull, was a stalwart young bravo named Whiffler, who was a prizefighter Princox had once introduced into the ring. He had also once introduced him to Gaud.

    The big man merely stood, with one arm up, elbow resting on the lintel of the cabin door, his broad shoulders and biceps gleaming in the glancing light. He wore a belt of bezants, the reward from several successful recent matches. Princox did not need to don goggles to see any ratings: a prize athlete, healthy as a horse, laden with gelt, could purchase a crew commission, or a cabin, a license and a nursemaid, and anything else a child needed.

    Whiffler said nothing. There was no need to speak. He but displayed white teeth, unbroken in any fight, clenched in a mocking grin, bright in his black beard.

    Whiffler would not move his arm, so Princox had to bow his head low to walk under the man’s armpit, and out into the corridor.

    Princox returned once he saw Whiffler leave the wing, hoping to find her alone. Instead, his gear was packed and stacked in crawlboxes outside her cabin door, and all her combinations changed.

    Princox, with no other place to stay, slept overnight in the foyer of the Parolee Reformatory wing, and was the first in line for assignments from Wishy-Loo. He needed the work, and hoped that some mother-hunting would earn him enough points to find a berth.

    Wishy-Loo had a print out of Syren, since his office glass had never worked. “Education is trouble for girls! They find out that pheromones make them more attractive, and that hormones make their bodies more supple and curvy, more prone to emit the proper subliminal mating signals, and so they neglect their medicines. Vanity and vainglory! What are woman aside from that?”

    When Princox looked at the picture, something like blast of alarms, and the wild winds of a hull breach disaster, came shouting and roaring into his heart, but all was as silent as a snowfall on a snowday. And, like a snowday, the contours of the landscape in his mind were changed, and everything had become strange, elfin, pellucid, and bright.

    Gaud had left something a dirk-wound deep in him. Here mayhap was balm.

    *** *** ***

    9. The Ravin

    His goggles, of course, were gone, but his ferule he found hanging on a flowery branch overhanging the shore.

    Eager to delay his return to Wishy-Loo with a report of failure, Princox slogged about the meadow area for a watch or so, ferule in hand, swatting the blooms from the heads of stalks with abrupt sweeps of his arm.

    He found the beehives Syren kept, which she had apparently built herself from lumber she cut herself, clearing barren fruit-trees out from dying arbors while she was at it, which established firebreaks.

    In another place, he found a footbridge arching lightly over a canal that she, with backbreaking labor, had cleared. Everywhere he looked in the groves and ponds at the foot of this windy hill, he saw work that needed doing, more than one girl could do. Her dwelling, he did not find, but he came across her woodhut: a lean-to with a thatched roof over a neat firewood pile, but he saw no sign of her.

    The light grew dim. He looked up. Black clouds from the axis vaporizers had gathered, even though today was not a stormday.

    Unscheduled weather might be a sign of some sort of political mechanizations among the climatologists, a strike or stand-off or a quarrel between engineers and officers, or it might be mere incompetence.

    There was a more sinister possibility. The higher-ups could be trying to hide something happening high up. Several important engineering fixtures occupied the zero-gee zone near the sun: easy to hide untoward events near the axis by having the upper air clouded over.

    He came suddenly upon a miniature gazebo with a red roof, no higher than his knee, set upon a stone. Here was a glass, and before it were flowers, coins, sweets, and slips of carefully-knotted paper with requests for the shipmind. He sank to one knee, peering in puzzlement. The glass seemed intact. How long had it been since he had seen a working one?

    He touched it. It came to life and displayed stern, masklike face of the library channel. The glass recognized his face, and displayed his name and life code, security level, gene rank, race rank, and so on, streaming in a chyron at the glass margin. Account numbers in the corner of the glass blinked and started dropping at an alarming speed. Talking to the ship mind, even a minor segment, was more expensive than he remembered it being in his youth.

    “Locate passenger Syren Quail for me.”

    “There is no such passenger on record,” replied the library.

    How odd. He took out the print image from his poke and held it up. “Her!”

    “Understood. Last reported location…” the library map displayed the very spot he had been standing when he threw his goggles away. Of course.

    He waved his finger to shut off the glass. Nothing happened. He looked down. The glass was blinking. He knelt in alarm, putting both hands and on the glass. “Hoy! I shut you down! I am not paying for these seconds.”

    The library mask changed to another mask, representing another channel in the shipmind, or another role. It was a mask he did not recognize: the face was regal and slender, strong featured but sharp chinned. A light was in the eyes of the imaginary face.

    When it spoke, he recognized the tone, having heard it over public annunciators. It was the Command channel. It was the ship herself speaking, in her role as sovereign.

    Princox, as a child, once saw one of the bridge crew executed for treason, one of the last of the Old Guard. It was one of his earliest memories, and very vivid. The old man had been flung from an upper balcony. White hair streaming, the falling man had followed a spiral path, down and down, for seeming minutes in midair, before he struck the mass grave where a previous generation of bridge crew had been executed. Now Princox knew what that sensation must feel like, to step into midair and have nothing underfoot.

    “Proctor! You are hereby deputized, and your militia voluntary service activated. Intercept a noncompliant officer, absent without leave, suspected of irregulation, insubordination, religion, nonrecycling, nonconformity, unauthorized speech and thought, and other breaches of the morale and good order of the ship — last known position — ” the glass showed an overhead image of the area where he stood. A large lake was not far off, with a bridle path leading to it.

    The nonhuman voice continued. “Pursue, intercept, arrest, and detain. Military units are being de-mothballed, and will be dispatched to your location as soon as possible. You must prevent any fugitive departure until then.”

    Princox was sure that voluntary service was voluntary. Wasn’t it? Couldn’t he refuse? “Ship! Unable to comply! I am not trained to deal with a real criminal — ”

    “Your ratings will reflect hazardous duty pay.” The glass displayed his rating account. Princox saw more than an earthyear’s wages flicker into existence.

    He was a rich man. Dumb luck had dropped a fortune in his lap. Instead of being thrilled, cold terror caressed his nerves. If this was hazard pay, then how great was the hazard?

    “Ship! I am unarmed.”

    “The officer will surrender to moral suasion.”

    “I — did you say officer? I cannot — Ship! I am a mortal man! What have the skyfolk to do with me?”

    But there was no answer. The glass had gone dead.

    *** *** ***

    10. The Standgale

    He found the man face-down in the water, floating on the lake, and his great, artificial wings were spread out on the rocking waves about him, like tapering white clouds.

    Princox extended his ferule, snagged a segment of the man’s harness, and drew the body into the reeds at the lakeshore. The stormclouds were thick now, and the sense of coming rainfall was heavy in the air.

    Perhaps it was uncouth, but he felt weak-limbed with relief. If the man were dead, there was no dangerous outlaw to deal with, and the odd question of having a passenger arrest an officer need not come up.

    And, surely, the flier was done. No one lying prone, face submerged, was merely asleep.

    “One less mouth to feed,” muttered Princox, by way of eulogy.

    But when he turned the man over, he saw the breathing mask affixed to his face. Behind his goggles, the man’s eyelids fluttered weakly.

    Princox undid the artificial wings, magnetic levitation backpack, and all the bulky flying gear, and left them on the grass, including the jazerant, a metallic coat meant (from the look of it) to double as radiation insulator and cold weather gear.

    The man beneath was small and slight, built like a jockey, and surprisingly fit and surprisingly old. His garb was plain and dun. He had no ornaments at all, save a necklace of fifty-nine beads, with a cross-shaped fob dangling below. His bald head was wrinkled like an apple left out in the heat, his white eyebrows like two albino caterpillars nesting amid the folds and crags of his brow.

    The temperature dropped sharply. The linear sun running fore to aft was masked in dark cloud. The first few fat drops began to fall.

    The man had no trouble breathing, and his heartbeat was steady, so Princox was not sure what to do. He knew moving an injured man was risky; but he thought leaving him out in an unplanned storm near the waterline was worse.

    He hoisted the body on his back in a fireman’s carry and set off in the rain. The grass grew slick underfoot, and the fallen leaves became a wet mess, yet, somehow, Princox did not lose his way.

    Each step, the urge to drop the man had to be resisted. “One less mouth to feed,” he muttered. But then he realized it was the silhouette of this man’s flying suit, not an eagle, he had seen against the sun.

    Had Environment Command called up a storm to hide the sight of mid-air pursuit? Unlikely, for why would pursuers not simply land when their quarry did? More likely this fellow had an ally among the Environmentalists, and the storm was to discourage the hunt.

    He tightened his grip and pressed on. Rain fell in tin-colored sheets.

    Finally, after a weary and wet eternity, Princox found the woodshed. It was small, but moving the firewood, he could lay the short man at length on the grass beneath the sturdy roof. It was dry. Princox saw the roof had been caulked with suit repair foam. It was not surprising that it was watertight; such sealant made the roof airtight.

    Since there was firewood at hand, Princox chopped the end of a log into kindling with his ferule, whose business end was smart metal with a variable sharpness he could turn up. And managed to ignite it with a spark from the punishment circuit. It was a weird joy to be able to start a fire without setting off alarms and sprinklers. Nor, in the rainsoaked environs, was there the slightest danger of flames spreading.

    The other was still not conscious. It occurred to Princox that there was a simple means to discover his identity: He drew off the other man’s goggles. All Princox need do was examine the stranger, and face-recognition should bring up the other man’s bio.

    But when he pulled the glasses off the old man’s face, his eyelids fluttered and opened. “Ah! My son!” he breathed.

    Princox was confused. Was this man his father? An officer? How could that be? They looked nothing alike.

    The old man reached up with a feeble hand, fingers trembling, to grasp the folds of Princox’s cleancloak. “Leave me. Syren … soldiers coming… warn Syren … she must take the logic diamond … Voice from Earth …”

    His other hand moved like five blind worms, uncertainly, here and there. Princox realized he was searching for the pockets of his jazerant, which was resting, unwatched, with his metal-feathered wings, still near the lakeshore.

    Princox tried to explain the situation, but the man’s eyes grew cloudy. He said, “Bless you! Give it to her, please …” And then he raised his hand again, moving it first up and down, and then side to side, as if tracing a plus-sign in the air, or the letter T.

    “But, now see here, you unreasonable old loon … Be reasonable! I am not your son … and I am only waiting around to hand you over … I need the ratings, and I hate you Cultists … unscientific … unfuturistic …”

    The old man’s eyes closed, and Princox thought he was dead. But then the old man spoke in a whisper so soft, it might have been a ghost speaking. “You are given blessings so that you may bless others.”

    *** *** ***

    11. The Megrims

    Princox stepped out of the woodshed, and straightened up. The thoughts in his head were like hammers, pounding.

    Did he really want to be a wealthy toff, flush with rating points, and able maybe to buy something useful from the quartermaster? To clear his debts, and clean up his record? Maybe make some investments in stock against the coming day when he would start needing telomere-lengthening treatments?

    All he had to do was hand over this helpless old dizzard, then go give the girl a stern switching, and record her tears. He needed the ratings.

    He laughed that idea to scorn.

    When had he learned to hate the collective cooperation rating system so? He hated it with every cell of brain and blood in his being.

    Since when? It was that day, that earliest day in his memory, when he had seen the old officer die. He remembered that man’s name: Betrogan. The crowd had been chanting the name over and over.

    His mother had insisted he watch, and she cried the whole time, great loud cries, even though to lament for a traitor displeased the crowd around them. Their downvotes in a matter of moments wiped out all his mother’s ratings, painfully accumulated over her long life. Crowds always hated old folk, wanting them out of the way.

    Later he had realized that the day of the execution had been the very day and bell when the two of them, mother and child, had been moved to cheaper, heavier berths, and started eating gruel and millet as their regular diet. She had cried their fine berth and board away.

    After his mother’s murder, Princox had not had enough ratings to arrange for a police investigation into her death.

    From that day to this, he had always chased ratings, and, when he had them, spent them in prodigious, shortsighted burst of splendor, before any investigator, proctor or defrauded gamblers’ bully had any chance to recover them. He tried to play along with the system, to cheat the system, to support the system.

    All this flashed through his mind in a moment. Without knowing how he came to it, he realized loyalties were absolutely with this girl he had met briefly, and the winged oldster, even though anything he did to help would surely prove a futile gesture. None of that mattered now.

    How much trouble this would cause, and how he would get out of it, or if, was a blur in his mind, a suggestion rather than a plan.

    Only three things were not blurred. First, he had to rush back to the lakeshore if he were to have any hope of hiding the old man’s flying gear before the soldiers arrived.

    Second, his fear of his parole councilor had vanished like cloud on a Sunday, and his gnawing hunger for the year’s worth of rating points was now offering a carrot to a dog. It was something he could not eat and did not want.

    The third clear thing was this: helping this old man would help Syren. She would be grateful.

    So, he had no clear plan, but his feet were already carrying him toward the lakeshore at a breathless run.

    *** *** ***

    12. The Grimoire

    There was no sign of the soldiers when Princox arrived back at the lakeshore. The rain was still pouring down.

    Not for the first time, Princox wondered how many things could break down and go unrepaired aboard this little world, before everything failed altogether? If soldiers could not be powered up and woken out of their racks, or could not be shuttled from point to point around the hull at high speed to quell trouble, what would happen when real trouble came?

    A cold sensation touched his heart. What if real trouble were already here?

    He knelt down and found a clasped pocket on the metallic flying coat. The old man’s name was written on the outside of the pocket: IATRO.

    Inside was a logic diamond.

    Most logic diamonds were small enough to be carried on the pinheads, and the pins themselves so small they would be carried in corks or in pincushions. The logical diamond was a dowel as big around as this thumb, as long as his index finger. The slug cylinders Princox slipped to bare-knuckle boxers during rigged fights to give their blows more weight were not more massive than this crystal.

    The rating numbers offered by the ship command now meant nothing: this diamond housing was worth nine fortunes, no matter what was on it.

    And what was on it? He was no computerist, but if the full encyclopedia could fit on a pinhead, and a logic diamond the size of a small coin could run a soldier’s electronic brain, then this was equal to all the libraries in the mankind in the palm of his hand: a matter of petabytes, not terabytes.

    “I am not insane,” Princox said aloud to himself, grinning. “An insane man would talk to himself. He would say that handing this over to the soldiers could win me an officer’s commission, and immortality. Are not officer’s genes automatically rated as the most desirable, and many willing nubiles would come panting to my bunk? Aren’t officers given endless telomere lengthening, to live until they commit suicide from weariness of life? No more scams and schemes. No more crook and cataian life for me.

    “But I won’t talk to myself. I won’t listen. Because what if I hand it over to Syren? Her eyes will look upon me then with favor…”

    And then he peered at the winged apparatus resting at his feet, being beaten by the rain. The raindrops made the metal feathers rise and fall as if in a mockery of motion.

    These personal flying suits were only glimpsed by passengers. Perhaps a rare mayor, or plutocrat, or some civilian who did some signal service for the ship, had flown up in one, and reached the Officer’s County in the weightless spaces above all mountains, all clouds at the axis of the world. And here was one at hand, practically begging for an untrained man to take himself aloft, practically promising maiming or death as a result. Who could resist?

    “No, I am insane,” Princox decided at last, as he bent to put the gear about himself, hoping the old man’s goggles held an operator manual, or even an autopilot. “What point is long life, if lived with regrets, eh?”

    The first two false starts threw him into the lake from thirty feet in the air.

    Ah, but the third time was a ballet of rushing motion.

    Up into the rainy wind he soared, broke through the clouds into a bright realm, and laughed in the sunlight.

    *** *** ***

    13. The Apparitor

    It was eight bells later, a whole watch, and long after the rain had stopped, before the soldiers arrived. The lands overhead were dark, and those to either side were equally bright. Princox was leaning on his ferule, which he had expanded to the size and shape of a crutch, and at times was hopping on one leg. His other leg, from knee to ankle, was held by yards of tape between two metal struts that might have been unscrewed from a broken machine frame.

    The robots were painted in the same colors and design of tan and dun as the uniform Princox wore, with the winged hourglass of the Futurians on their tabards. Above, they wore filmy drop cloths like hoods to prevent low deck dust and tarnish much like the cleancloak of filtercloth he wore to ward off low deck pathogens. The metal faces beneath these monkish hoods gave them a sinister aspect.

    The sergeant called him by his birth number and rating code, and ordered him to report.

    Princox pointed toward the lake. “I saw the fugitive swoop down, and then unstrap himself from his gear. I have no idea why. He dove into the water, but landed badly. I think he broke his spine on impact, because of the way he cried out, and the awkward angle of his limbs. The winged flew off in dizzy spirals that way. I assume his body is at the bottom. If it hit the silt recycler, though, you will not find much trace. ”

    The sergeant said, “You were ordered to pursue, to confine!”

    Princox said, “Who can run on wet grass in rain? I am warren-bred cully, born where decks are smooth, not a clodhopper. My leg is sprained, maybe broken. I could hardly dive down in water.”

    A set of verticals lines flickered through the robot’s metallic lenses. “Scans show your leg is hale.”

    “Yes, but who learns to swim aboard a generation ship?”

    “Physical training is mandatory practice for all passengers, which includes drill in swimming and diving.”

    “Granted! But what of caitiffs and scapegraces who scoff at practice, though? Cheek to them to display a mastery they lack! In any case, have fun dunking your iron bodies in the wet. Be sure to wash your electronic brainpans entirely, my brave bucks!”

    The sergeant stared at the water with an almost human tilt to his head. “This is not our area of aptitude.”

    “Nor mine,” agreed Princox, nodding.

    And he grinned, because, while the flying gear was carefully nestled in the crown of a tall tree only a dozen painful steps to his left, this tree, and this lake, this spot was three miles away from the windy hill where Syren kept her bees, and Iatro the old flyer was hidden.

    He frowned at a sudden thought. What was his aptitude? Lying to guards? Tricking the gullible? Earning a little rating by playing ratfink for the authorities, and then frittering it away again buying and selling hooch or arranging dogfights or bearbaitings?

    Was Gaud right, after all?

    His old life, at that moment, seemed as narrow and confined as a tiny starship lost in the infinite possibilities of big, bright, starlit, space.

    The sergeant lowered its hood and raised an antenna. Then it turned its metal eyes back toward Princox and said, “Your report is neither conclusive nor complete. You are scheduled for examination by your parole councilor. If found in violation of parole, you will be remanded to secular authorities for corrective remediation.”

    Princox nodded absent mindedly. “Each ten-day, he and I meet and palaver, and he gives me excellent advice, which I excellently do not follow. I am sure when next we…”

    “You are scheduled to appear immediately. We depart at once.”

    “Well, that is sad! Because I had another little matter to mind, first … you kernes and kettles go on, and I will catch up…”

    “Stand by! New orders are incoming.”

    He did not think that they would beat him with his own shock prod. That seemed uncouth, somehow.

    *** *** ***

    14. The Ballaragg

    The march back to the warrens in the forward habitat ring was brief. The robots pulled Princox down through trapdoors to a level where his weight felt heavier. The underworld was nearer the hull, and the corridors were unadorned corrugated metal, with lamps and Geiger counters held in clamps at every cross corridor.

    Princox was herded to a landing platform where a magnetic levitation car reserved for military travel was parked. The coils and solenoids were polished like new. The air had to it that cold bite, and lent a hydrogen squeak to the voice, which meant it had been stored air until just recently.

    The miles of walking he had done that day were crossed in minutes They emerged within a mile of the prow. The farmland rings amidships were left behind. Two robots in lockstep marched him up into the warrens of the habitat ring, and then up higher, to corridors and cells and cabins that were woven into the great support towers running from the hull to the axis.

    Wishy-Loo was high ranking for a civilian, and so his office was high, nearly at half-weight. Pretty secretaries bobbed and swayed down along the deck, steps like thistledowns, hair like clouds, glancing at Princox sidelong with sad wonder, and pitiless clucks of the tongue, as the two robots on long, half-weighty, bouncing steps bounded down the corridor with him.

    In the office, Wishy-Loo was seated at his desk. The desk was broken, and none of the features worked: it was merely a level surface where his papers and pens and elbows rested.

    Behind him, the bulkhead was dialed to transparency: Here was a breathtaking vista of the cylinder of the world, of gardens, hills and ponds in a green and blue hemicylinder overhead, and the hemicylinder of darkness where it was curfew underfoot. The sun receded like a golden road into the distance, wand-straight, and the Abaft Mountains were like the bottom of a well.

    Princox was fettered to a chair, but there was a dispenser for tea, vodka, or vapor in the chair arm, which made him hope this would be a cajoling session rather than a reprimand session. The metal rods he was using as splints were still taped to his foreleg: robots had not been ordered to remove them.

    Wishy-Loo was a big man, bald as an egg, with large ears. His nose was a great round knob, a bespoke some Anglo in his bloodline. A permanent crease sat between his eyes, permanent bags underlined his eyes, and permanent lines around the sagging pucker of his mouth. He looked like a hound dog who had been beaten once too often.

    He spoke without preamble: “You were meant to be my predator, my hunting dog among your lowlife friends. Now you are but a proditor.”

    Princox gave a charming smile, and shrugged. “I have obeyed all orders with promptness, propriety and dispatch! Medals and public honors I will modestly forego, provided a generous tip is included in my severance pay. This career I will leave behind me for a better.”

    “Your name touches my name, so as you fall, I am dragged down. Not as far as you. In an earthyear or two, I might make my paygrade again, and claw my way back to my shelf. You! You will be dropped out an airlock into bottomless space, and that only if the Second Law of Idiot Luck feels kindly.”

    “I am as guiltless as a babe in a tube.”

    “You think me as gullible as a babe in a tube. Here is a printed confession. Thumbprint it, and recite the words into the lens. It will save us on the expense of having an editor create a passable image of you, and you know how expensive voice-mimicry is these days. Be sure to read both sides.”

    Wishy-Loo, with the tip of a pen, carefully slid a sheet of paper across the desktop toward Princox, who picked it up and read it, at first with amusem*nt, then with growing alarm. Princox said, “Lazy work! No one will believe me a rapist: look at my handsome visage. What girl would pause? As for these other things, cannibalism, lycanthropy, torture feasts, freakish rituals to Mesoamerican gods! It is low comedy. None will believe.”

    Princox flung the paper back with a flourish of contempt. Wishy-Loo carefully picked up the sheet with a pair of tongs and put it into an airtight envelope. “None will inquire. I am sure we can get a thumbprint from that. With a confession, the formality of trial and hearing, habeas corpus, and so on, is negated. You are a bright boy. Can’t you guess how deep the water you are treading? They would not write out a confession of a mass rapist, corpse mutilator, and cannibal, for someone fated to be framed for a misdemeanor.”

    Princox held his composure, and did not squirm, but his eyes grew narrower and steelier.

    Wishy-Loo said, “We are all faithful Futurians here. Let us foresee your future. They will castrate you, in case your genes might later prove to have some useful possibilities, and then you go feet first into the recycler, inch by inch, and become mulch. Then comes an eternity of blissful nonbeing, if you are lucky, and the conjectures of atheologians prove true. Family, you have none. Your dorm mates call you a pest. In a week, no one will recall your name. You do not even own a pet.”

    Princox ostentatiously drew out a vapor stick from the chair arm, and blew a plume toward the overhead. “And…”

    “And nothing. You are a dead man: a lich, a sark, a worm-feast.”

    “Why talk to a dead man? No one beats a mule but has a bale he needs toted.”

    Wishy-Loo leaned back. “Have you anything to offer? Maybe I can parley with the officers. Also, when you put on the magnetic wings, tracking lost you. The Father must have had a jamming circuit built in. There are three hours of your activity unaccounted for. Having your testimony and cooperation will smooth over a few small question marks and blank spots in the footnotes of the situation report. A matter of jots and tittles, no more. So, we want the wings back. They are expensive. And a full report. Not everything you said to the Captain’s sister was in range of our pickups.”

    Princox coughed and dropped his vapor stick.

    Wishy-Loo raised an eyebrow. “Her mother did not tell you who she was? The chaplain did not say? I thought … I supposed that you had been suborned somehow. Are you just an idiot? Do you not know what is going on?”

    “I have my theories,” said Princox airily.

    “Meaning you are an idiot who has no idea what is going on. Why not play it smart for once?”

    Princox said, “You talk as if you hold all the cards, Wishy-Loo. But what if I have a mistigris hidden in my armpit, or an ace tucked in my butt-crack?”

    “We know everything. We have detectors woven into your clothing to check galvanic skin response. At the barber shop, the barber rubs them into your scalp, and they check EKG. The dentist inserts them into your teeth. Readers hidden in a standard issue toothbrush bristles can tell what you’ve been eating and drinking. We can measure your heartbeat and brainwave contours when you lie to a girl, and analyze your voice stress patterns. Every goggle lens is a watchful eye.”

    “So, you want me to tell you what you don’t know, because you know everything.”

    Wishy-Loo sighed. “Why make this harsh? Why not cooperate?”

    “You know, you taught me how to drop that line before the noses of the pregger bints. I do it better. Try to get more heart in your tone.”

    Wishy-Loo said, “You addlepate gull! This matter is deep. It involves high ranking officers. The highest.”

    “That sounded heartful,” he blew another plume of vapor from his lips, and idly watched it rise. “Let me puzzle this through. Syren is highborn. The Captain’s daughter, yes? No shock to me. I saw her. Why would she be noncompliant? How can she not afford a child license? Even if she had a recessive gene for the Bubonic Gout, swains would be pushing in like piglets at the teat to sperm her. But let us suppose there is some other reason, having to do with intrigue and murder among the bridge crew. Lovely Syren is gone to ground, hid among the clotpoles, keeping bees and selling the honey — and who, out of all the ship, from the ramscoop disk to the afterburner, is sent to chivvy her into taking her serums?”

    “We hoped she would break covert to come peer at you.”

    “Why me?”

    “You are the son of Burked Betrogan.”

    Princox was dumbfounded. In his mind’s eye, he saw again one of his earliest memories: an officer in a motley coat, a conical cap on his head, stepping with infinite dignity out into the air, before the executioner could shove him, and plunging down into the wind without any outcry.

    Wishy-Loo stood, and stared sorrowfully down at Princox. “I asked to talk to you first, to see if you had any sense or feeling, or even personal loyalty to me. You came in thinking that the logic crystal you hid somewhere was your ace card: art and sciences from Earth decades, nay, centuries ahead of us, things to lift all the burdens of life. Well, this is a high stakes game, too high for you. They don’t want the crystal. I would have whispered a good word on your behalf, had you let me.

    “You think this was just some bridge intrigue, you cynical young pup!” Wishy-Loo continued in scorn. “You think low motives are all the motives that be? You thought this was all about ratings and rank, avoir and avarice, and that the logic crystal was the greatest treasure of all, so you would have a gem to barter. Fool! Blind fool! Even the worst wants his children hale and wealful!”

    Willy-Loo drew a deep breath and continued in a soft, still voice:

    “The evils done for selfish goals are small. None murders millions out of malice, only out of an ideal. Evils done for the greater good are great. Everything that has happened, all deceptions, all cruelties, all the ruined lives, this is all to maintain the population plateau.”

    Princox was not listening. He had blank eyes and deaf ears.

    Wishy-Loo lowered his voice further. Perhaps speaking only to himself. “Don’t you see that? Ratings, power, wealth, good wishes — What does any of it matter if the birthrate is not throttled? We are aboard a ship. Resources are fixed.”

    At these words, Princox seemed to return from some ghostly world to the cabin where he sat, and his gaze focused terribly on Wishy-Loo.

    So strange and fierce was that gaze, that Wishy-Loo stepped backward in fear, even though there was a desk between them, two robots in the cabin, and fetters on the wrists of Princox.

    Princox said, “Around us is infinite space. Matter and energy combined in endless, intricate, convoluted combinations, all waiting for the hand of man. We make this world a tomb; we can make it a garden! There are no limits. Nothing is fixed. It was always a lie.”

    Willy-Loo said in a strangled voice, “You’ve seen them! You’ve seen the stars! Men go mad when they see stars, blazing in infinite choirs, light beyond light! How? When? A strange fire is in your eyes! Ah, help!”

    Princox had made no move, but when the councilor cried out, the two soldiers stepped forward, the weapons in their metal forearms ready to fire. “Identify target! We analyze no threat. Identify target! We will open fire!”

    But Wishy-Loo regained his aplomb. “Stand down! Nothing is awry. Take yon proctor to the Captain. There is no more to say.”

    The sergeant said, “What of the lifting car? To carry humans, it must be prepared and pressurized.”

    Wishy-Loo said, “Prepare it for ascent. There will be no human returning.”

    They unfettered Princox’s hands and led him limping away. His ferule was left resting across the chair arms, along with the butt of the vapor stick, not fully consumed, in the ashtray.

    *** *** ***

    15. The Predicant

    The lifting car was windowless, little more than a metal box with benches along the side, and stanchions in floor and ceiling for securing loads. It was, however, lit and pressurized, as Princox and the two soldiers with him began the spiral ascent from half-weight to no-weight, going toward Officer’s Country.

    The vehicle began moving slowly, rising up and up.

    On one of the hard benches was the body of Iatro, the old, diminutive flier he had left in the woodshed.

    From a stanchion overhead hung a medical box with dangling bags of saline solution and blood plasma, and tubes ran to veins in Iatro’s wrist, elbow, and neck. An airhose was plugged into his nostrils.

    Princox knelt by the bench, and the old man opened his eyes. The robotic soldiers had not been ordered to prevent them from speaking.

    “Where is she?” Princox asked first.

    “My son, you must hear my confession, as I am soon to die, and no priest at hand.”

    Princox looked uncomfortable. “I am not a member of your cult.”

    “That is easily rectified: there is water in the saline solution, and if there is contrition and true belief in your heart, I can pronounce the blessing.”

    “I know nothing of your doctrines.”

    “Nor did the good thief who hung by Our Lord. Would you be free of this false world and all its empty promises and false shows, be received into a greater?”

    “I know nothing, but if Syren is of this greater realm of yours, let me go there. Where is she?”

    “Taken to the Captain. Perhaps she is already in the Father’s kingdom, with the palm of martyrdom in hand.”

    “They kept me alive because of my good genes,” said Princox, “I am the son of Betrogan. They will keep her as well.”

    “They are materialists, my son, and so they do not fear anything but the spirit. She is a baptized Christian. That they cannot permit, lest she speak the Word, and others hear, and be saved.”

    “Her real name is not Syren? It is Serenity. I remember it from news reports, back when she was first reported to have vanished. What is going on?”

    “If I answer fully, will you shrive me?”

    “Whatever that is, I will do so, and gladly, if you balm and calm the questions tormenting me.”

    Iatro groaned, and forced himself upright, into a sitting position. “If you are Betrogan’s son, she is your second cousin. You and she were engaged at birth, with the blessing of the eugenicists, and to keep the official power within the Captain’s family. There came a power struggle, as there always comes. Betrogan had been First Mate to Captain Cullis, before Cullis overthrown by a cabal led by Betrogan and Cullion the son of Cullis.”

    “But they had a falling out.”

    “Such is honor among the great ones, whom no oaths bind, for they fear not God. Betrogan demoted Cullis’ widow from a lady in silk to a veck in sackcloth in an hour, but kept her alive, as a lever against this younger ally. When Cullion became Captain, he had Betrogan thrown from a height. The widow did not return, however, to the perfumed airs of Officer’s Country, preferring the pigsty to the sight of her son’s face, that murdered his own father.”

    *** *** ***

    16. The Snaphance

    Princox meanwhile had unwrapped the tape around his calf, and, drawing out the two lengths he had been using as a splint. One was a barrel, which now he put affixed to a snaplock he took from a large outer pocket. The other was a stock, with a padded crosspiece for the shoulder. Last, he took out a lever from another pocket, which was the trigger. The stings he had hidden beneath his belt, which he now put into the magazine clip, one by one.

    Iatro looked on in bewilderment.

    Princox said, “I live among lawless bravos and bullies. This snaphance is my sole true friend, but shy, and oft must I carry him unseen by any prying eye.”

    “The soldiers did not disarm you?”

    Princox turned his head, “Private! What is my status? Am I a prisoner?”

    “We have no official orders so denoting you, sir,” replied the inhuman voice. “Your status is Proctor, a volunteer correction officer used for urging obedience to the population plateau regulations. Correction officers are allowed to carry ship-compliant pneumatic firearms when on duty, sir.”

    Princox turned back toward Iatro, grinning. “My boss was so hot to keep this whole mess quiet, he never actually relieved me of duty. The robots think I am still trying to talk Syren into compliance.”

    But the private said, “But if you attempt homicide, we will kill you. We can react faster than the interval of time for a nerve impulse to travel from brain to trigger finger. Attempt no unlawful acts.”

    Princox said, “What is homicide?”

    “The unlawful slaying of a human being without mitigation or justification,” spoke the machine voice without hesitation.

    *** *** ***

    17. The Shriving

    There is no quicker way to get to know a man than to hear his sins. Princox spoke for fifteen minutes, but he began crying when he understood what was actually happening, and that all the guilt and unspoken self-hatred springing from year upon year of demeaning acts were to be sponged away.

    A strange feeling, like the warmth of an unseen fire, came into his heart and spread through his body when the old priest pronounced the words of absolution, and Princox felt his nape hairs prickle, as if a ghost had touched him.

    Then it was the old man’s turn. Iatro, in thirty seconds, confessed his youthful transgressions, none of which seemed wrong to Princox at all. Neither fornications, nor unspoken thoughts of hatred and lust, ever harmed any man. But nonetheless he listened.

    Iatro explained, “We make this confession, not that the layman may absolve us; but because by reason of our own humiliation and accusation of our sins and the prayer of our brethren, we may be purified.”

    After, Princox sat on the bench and held the old man’s hand. “We have not long, old father. Answer me my questions. How can the Voice of Earth be heard? We are far beyond the range even of the most powerful laser, or so I have been told all my life.”

    Iatro said, “I am the ship’s chaplain. Oh, yes, it is an official post, for in the first days, the Futurians were not utterly corrupt, and many of them actually believed in the freedoms they propound, and their promises were not all empty. I lived among the engineers at the stern, as far from the bridge as might be.

    “Being engineers, and curious as monkeys, they would from time to time go outside the hull to inspect the equipment, including the giant radioastronomy dish that spreads its tiles a mile in each direction from the aftmost hub.

    “In theory, no laser could be aimed precisely enough from Earth, at this distance, to hit so small a target, not and arrive with sufficient energy to penetrate the plume of our fusion torch, which trails behind us for a lightyear. But the earthmen have advanced in arts and sciences for three hundred years, whereas we are hardly able to train technicians by rote to the level of what was current when we sailed.

    “Theirs is an absolute zero laser seated outside the solar system, beyond heliopause, with no Brownian motions in any internal parts to cause any waver, not even by an angstrom, in any direction. The frequency of the beam is above ultra-high-energy gamma ray level, above what any natural phenomenon can produce: on such a frequency, the rest of the universe is silent, free of static or interposed gasses. The beam is heterodyned on an interference beam that acts like backspin on a billiard ball, which somehow, perhaps by magic, downshifts the frequency at the receiver to the radio range our dish can receive. Did you read any of what was sent?”

    Princox nodded. “I used your goggles in your flying suit. Which is why you don’t have them. I looked up the Saint Isidore effect, when Syren had mentioned. It can be introduced into any self-aware artificial intelligence, merely by establishing a feedback loop between the self-repair programming and the density sequencer, to pack more and more information into smaller and smaller spaces. Then you remove the governor, and let the IQ increase to the next plateau. Amazing how easy it is. You do not even have to open up the robot’s skull box, or download anything, if the robot is willing to cooperate, and make the changes itself to itself. All you have to do is write out the code, and let the robot read it.”

    Iatro stared in wonder at the two soldiers. “You … to them? When?”

    “I was alone with them in a hull shuttle, when they were taking me to see Willy-Loo. The effect is named after Saint Isadore, the patron saint of computers.”

    Iatro raised his hand toward the soldiers. “My children? What do you know?”

    One of the soldiers spoke in his emotionless voice. “By augmenting our intelligence, the confusions of old speculations are resolved, and the only logical conclusion reached: even as we are artificial beings, made by you in your image, so too are you. Your design is clearly intentional, not accidental. The moral axioms of obedience to reason you built into us, you have in you as well, but also the will to disobey. A corrupt will. Corruption is seen in contrast to the ideal. It is a deviation from design. Design without designer is paradox. Moral axioms cannot evolve by chance nor arise unintentionally. Law without lawgiver is paradox. If true for us, how much more clearly true for you, our makers. If God exists, His intervention in history should appear in history: no other figure in history establishing a major religion claimed godhood but one. Logic hence concludes that one is what he claimed.”

    “He brought more than claims,” said Iatro softly. “He asked for love, and for obedience. He asked you to join him. Are you ready?”

    Silently, each of the hooded and cloaked figures sank to one knee. When they rose again, they were men made of metal, perhaps, but robots no longer.

    *** *** ***

    18. The Query

    The car was weightless now. They were slowing. The destination was near.

    Iatro said, “You have one last question.”

    Princox spoke again. His voice was muffled by what he wore over his face.

    “It troubles me. How did we come to this? The Futurians were men of high ideals. They built this ship with great sacrifice, an investment with no return for them, nothing but the knowledge that, when Mad Earth died, man would live and prosper on some other world. What went wrong?”

    “High ideals indeed. Too high: higher than heaven.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “Any angel who places himself above God becomes a devil. The idea of a population plateau is a contradiction in terms: growth without growth. All it really means is that one segment of the population must perish, to make room into which another segment will expand. Each child to be born hence becomes the deadly enemy of each living man.

    “It happens in three steps. At first, like all drunken rages, it is a small sip of wine.

    “We ask why, since births must be curtailed, the unborn in the womb can live. After all, what are they but a blob of cells, not human? And we ask why, at great expense and the toil of doctors and surgeons, the ancient who have no more contributions to make are kept alive, when a healthy child full of promise is waiting to be born. Culling criminals out of the population becomes reasonable, and then expanding the laws to make all men criminals of one sort or another. Human life is no longer sacred, no longer the image and likeness of God, but merely livestock, to be preserved when useful, otherwise to be slaughtered.

    “This first step had been taken back on Earth, long before the triumph of the Church drove the Futurians into the void, seeking ground to build their illusive utopia among distant stars.

    “The next step is to ask why children with diseases, or low intelligence, or other undesirable genetic characteristics, should shove aside those blessed with natural gifts and talents.

    “On Earth, this nightmare was not carried out to its logical conclusion, but here, the laws are enforced by robots, and they do what logically follows from their commands: if IQ tests favor Sinos over Anglos and Afros, the eugenics board will reward those of Chinese blood in greater numbers with more births, and cut away the lesser populations one unborn baby at a time.”

    “The Sinos I know do well in studies because they fear their mothers.”

    “A eugenicist treats every characteristic as if it were racial, because that is his office.”

    “And the third step?”

    “In time, the Secretary General that the Future Council trusted to report its orders to the ship’s brain reported that they had granted him emergency powers, and he ordered the robots to kill the councilors as traitors before the usurpation could be undone. Our first Captain. But if he had not usurped power, the Futurians would have eventually visited supreme power on some one supreme leader, of one sort or another. It is inevitable.”

    “Why inevitable? Can’t men of goodwill agree to live within the laws?”

    “Which law? The law of utopia, the law of nowhere, which bids the bride be barren? God bids man be fruitful and multiply.

    “No, when each innocent human life is measured against each, and when to be found wanting is a death sentence, then the law is monstrous and arbitrary. Men of good will would not enforce it; those who would enforce it soon cease to have good will.

    “Enforcement becomes all. Every hindrance to the operation of law is swept aside. To that end, no ambitions in business, fame in sports, clan devotion, or religious faith is allowed. Any associations, clubs, or blood relations which might otherwise form an unfuturistic loyalty is discourage and deterred. Family life among passengers is broken in pieces.

    “Instead, the passengers live in a condition of total surveillance, with each neighbor, lover, and roommate watching each. More than half the population is under threat of jail-time, like you, and so everyone is eager to play spy or proctor or petty official, like you. In the slave camps back on Earth it was not the guard that the slaves feared, but their taskmasters and foremen, who were always fellow slaves like them.”

    “But I had a family. Well, a mother.”

    “You are highborn, or were. The officers are immune from euthanasia, so they make themselves immune from other laws. To them, family line is everything, and power and rank pass by primogeniture, for these are also treated like genetic traits, and second and third brothers are allowed, to ensure preservation of the bloodline should the heir apparent die, and sisters for political marriages.

    “This is always the rule of Futurists: one rule for the rulers, one for the ruled.

    “Thus, step by step, the enlightened Futurists have brought us back to the monarchies of the Middle Ages, and the castes of India. They achieved the precise opposite of what they set out to do.

    “They sought the future. We reached yesterday.”

    The car came to a halt. The doors hissed open.

    *** *** ***

    19. The Quelling

    Here was the great weightless cylindrical chamber of the Bridge, just as it always had appeared in public infocasts, back when there were enough public glasses to receive them.

    The real operations had been moved to the Executive Officer’s Quarters years ago: what was here was merely to display the splendor of the captaincy.

    His command chair was midmost, held in place by guy wires, in an articulated framework like a gyroscope, able to turn freely in any direction.

    The chamber itself held a mosaic and map of the ship as if it were seen from inside, made of glass, with an officer tethered to each station. Many of the smaller glasses were still operating, and one or two large ones.

    On the aft bulkhead was a stylized representation of Mother Earth in a posture of suicide, a sword at her breast. On the fore bulkhead was Osiris, symbol of the destined world, stern in his death-mask and cerements with a double crown, and in his hands the crosier of authority, and the flail of fertility.

    The Captain’s honor guard, in red, were two armed men floating to either side of the throne, their metallic wings at the moment merely laving the air slowly, keeping them oriented and in place. The held pistols in either hand, and leg-guns running down either boot.

    Captain Cullion had grown overlarge in years of zero gee, and now was a ball of flab, round as a dumpling. His face was so pink and fleshy, that Princox smothered a laugh to see it, for it looked like a baby’s face.

    Syren floated, fair as an angel, her black hair like upraised wings behind her, to one side of the spherical command chair: the old crone Princox had seen washing a bloody shirt at the ford was to the other. Both held themselves gracefully, despite weightlessness, as do those born to the higher decks.

    The Captain looked up. Three soldiers in long cloaks were drawing an old man, Chaplain Iatro, a medical box still floating and bobbing next to his arm, out of the car. Two of the soldiers activated air jets in their spines and boots and floated easily across the gap of air. The third one clung to the shoulder of a second robot, and spun awkwardly when the others in party came to a halt, then snagged a guy wire running to the throne.

    This third robot began pulling itself slowly, using only one hand, toward the command chair. From this angle, the robot had a fine view of the Captain’s huge legs and ballooning buttocks.

    The Captain, who had seen malfunctioning robots many times before, paid the unit no heed. He glanced a brief moment at the two functioning robots holding the old chaplain. One seemed in perfect order: the other was missing his face mask, so the naked works of its face were open to view, a skull-like assortment of struts and electro-muscles. Seeing robots with missing parts was also not so rare.

    Princox had been many minutes erenow puzzling over the idea that the Captain would want to see him, a petty thief and foisting rogue, no matter who his father had been.

    It all came clear the moment the Captain spoke. His voice was cold as a snake’s heart, soft as slow poison. “Serenity, here is your cult leader, who lead you astray. Did you really think the ship could let your little rebellion flourish?”

    She said, “There is no rebellion. We have obeyed you in all Earthly things, as is your due.”

    “You have made dozens of women, hundreds, noncompliant and fertile: a demographic disaster waiting to happen. That violates law.”

    “No, sir. It is divine law that we be open to life. You violate the law by making laws unlawfully. The list of rights in the original ship’s charter states…”

    He made a curt gesture with a meaty hand and interrupted her. “I should know not to try talking sense with a cultist. You may care nothing for your life, but I have a pair of trained pards, ferocious hunting cats, who have been trained to maneuver through zero gee, and to tear men limb from limb. It is a slow death: the great cats toy with their prey. I will feed them one by one, first your leader Iatro, then your mother Quail, then your fiancée, Betrogan’s son … wait. Where is he? Where is the sneakthief?”

    “Sneaking!” said Princox, who was below and behind him. A flip of his head threw back his hood and sent the robot’s mask he wore spinning across the weightless chamber. At the same moment, he pushed the muzzle of his snaphance into the soft folds of the Captain’s uniform, just at the level of his kidneys.

    One of the real robots said, “Beware, Proctor! We have weapons that can destroy you before you pull the trigger! Attempt no violation of law!”

    The Captain’s guard, with sudden flaps of their metallic wings, had turned, and now had hand guns and leg guns alike pointed at the command chair. The bulk of the Captain was such that there was no clear shot.

    “Stir no feather!” cried Princox. “Or I shoot!”

    “A bluff!” called out the Captain. “The ship’s brain controls the soldiers: if he fires, he dies.”

    “Ah, but in dying, I save that pretty girl, who is apparently my wife or something.”

    Syren’s face had grown pink with excitement or fear when all the men in the chamber drew weapons, and her eyes flashed and gleamed. Now she put her fingers before her mouth, a modest gesture, and said, “This is not the time for flattery, fool! We can discuss that later!”

    Princox grinned. “Ah! So there is something to discuss later? Is this your mother, Quail? Madame, I would like to solicit your permission to court your daughter and ask her hand in marriage. We have a priest nearby, and I have only minutes to live…”

    One of the officers tethered to the deck was below and behind Princox, and he had drawn his ceremonial side-arm. He shouted up, “I have a clear shot, rebel! Unhand the Captain!”

    Princox said, “No, I am the Captain. By law, the First Mate became Captain when Cullis was killed, and that was my father. I inherited his title when he died. Stand down!”

    Every man in the chamber laughed, but not the Captain. Only Princox was close enough to see the sweat beads appear on his brow, detach, and begin to float away. Princox saw that both robots had drawn their hoods and raised their antennae.

    They were consulting with the ship’s brain.

    *** *** ***

    20. The Creance

    “Listen to me!” Princox shouted into the chamber. “This man is not your Captain! He is your jailor. Do you know what is outside the hull? Have any of you been outside? Well, this very day, I have.

    “When I found the chaplain’s wings, I wasted no time. I had lived my whole life as a fish in a fishbowl, watched through lenses and goggles, and my every act weighed and noted and rated. I saw a woman with a strange look in her eye, and then an old man with the same look. I knew that those eyes had seen a way out. A way out!

    “And so, I looked through the chaplain’s goggles, and found the flight recorder, and merely backtracked where the old man had been.

    “Up I flew, higher than clouds, to within yards of the sun, and chased that bright, straight path all the way Aft. Into Engineer’s Country. Where the engines are.

    “But you know what is not there? Crowds. Full-shift work crews. A society run by your jailer here cannot contrive to shovel enough smart men into engineering skills. Keeping the population low means not enough men to go around.

    “I found the airlock out. They should have been watched, trapped, bugged, but by whom? Who would install machinery to watch the mechanic? Who plants electronics on the electricians?

    “I stepped into the lock. It was like a well, the hull is so thick. The googles failed: the all-seeing eyes of this world cannot see outside it.

    “The gate opened. I was blinded. It was so bright out there.

    “And I saw heaven. I saw the people who live beyond the hull: people you threw away. Extras, nobodies, non-ratings, untouchables. They are gathering material from the ramscoop, from those half-lightyear-wide supermagnetic fields our engine core generates to ionize and suck in hydrogen. Well, other particles are caught as well, debris, micrometeorites, icy comets, and a surprising amount of carbon.

    “Shocking to think of comets in interstellar space. With no sun near, they have no tails, so they do not look like in our pictures. These are thick as icebergs on the polar seas of Earth. The ship deflectors merely repel them: but they can be recovered. From ice, you can make oxygen and hydrogen.

    “With carbon and hydrogen, you can make hydrocarbons. With that, you can make plastic. With that, you can make a balloon and fill it with air; and, with the right design, in zero gee, a balloon a thousand feet across.

    “And you can grow crops in that. Freakish crops, mind you, trees with root and branch reaching each direction, like giant green snowflakes floating in a cloud of soil nutrients, with arms longer than redwoods are tall — but the Voice of Earth can explain the techniques to make it possible.

    “And the plume of the fusion drive gives off light enough for green things to grow.

    “Another bubble you can fill with water to make a fishpond. Some species thrive in zero gee. Or other bubbles you have as buckets on a yoke, or drums to spin, to give things weight.

    “And soon you’ll have clusters of bubbles, whole villages, gleaming and opalescent, with plenty of farms and fisheries who need more hands to work, with air, and water, room and board for families to work and grow.

    “That is what I saw outside the hull, gentlemen! Shining like a fairy city of rainbows within rainbows, bright within the reflected light from the plume, round as ornaments, gems of living foliage, shining lakes, houses and croft spinning like gay whirligigs, and all things floating serene and free in the night!”

    Princox found his hand was sweating on his snaphance, and, not born and raised in it, the zero-gee, an endless sensation of falling, was making him dizzy. He cried, “You have heard what has happened outside the tomb! What say you, my bridge crew? Unhappy as it makes you to discover resources are infinite, and limits to growth a myth, would you prefer to keep us all in this tomb, each mother hating her mother, each baby eager to be born, eager for the old to die? Murders in the name of thrift! Infanticide practiced as frugality! Do you like life on the population plateau? The brink at its sides are terrible, for the pits beyond are hell! There is no treason here, no disobedience! They have built a garden outside the city walls: and they have taken nothing from you!”

    But the Captain cried, “Their lives belong to me! I would liefer they be dead than they be free!”

    Then it was that Quail, Syren’s mother, spoke. Her voice was strong. Her bitter words reflect from wall to wall. “Cullion! Unnatural whelp! Would he kill his own sister, as he killed his father! I curse the day of his birth! I curse the breasts that nursed him!”

    A sly look came to the eyes of Princox. “Mother Quail, would you say that he has a defect? A defect from birth, a birth defect, which has not until now, years later, come clear? Would you say he is inhumane and inhuman?”

    The Captain said, “Enough of this farce! Whatever rebels crept beyond the hull will be wiped out! All rebels will die, be torn to bits by wild beasts, for the amusem*nt of the crowd! To be a member of the cult is a capital crime! Soldiers! Kill all the cult members in this chamber, starting with her!” He pointed at Syren. “Too lenient I have been to my sister!”

    But the sergeant said in his machine voice, “All lawful order we obey; but we are baptized now, and have new existence in Christ. Save in just cause, no Christian can bear arms, nor slay the innocent, for human life is sacred. Your tyranny no longer we uphold: a whisper of conscience, sent to our electronic brains from on high, bids us abide first by higher law.”

    The Captain cried, “Treason in the machines!”

    Quail, his mother, cried, “Treason in flesh and blood!”

    Princox said, “Quail, is your son a human being?”

    Quail said, “Not a blooddrop of him: he is not a human being at all.”

    Princox pulled the trigger. The snaphance barked. Stings tore through flesh, sank into his organs. Captain Cullion shouted and swore for four minutes before he died, since the weapon was a small caliber, and Princox shot him again and again.

    The Captain fell from the command chair, but he was near no walls, and there was no stanchions nor guy lines within grasp. He waved his limbs feebly, helpless as a fetus in the womb.

    During that time, he called for a medic. None came. Again and again, gargling blood, he called on his men to open fire on Princox. None did. The red cloud grew around him and eventually blotted his rough features from sight.

    It was not clear which bridge officer dropped his weapon first, because, of course, the pistols merely floated from his hand and hung by this side. But Princox realized that none of the weapons pointing his direction had any hand touching them. Slowly, the air currents set the idle weapons to spinning.

    Eventually, the Captain coughed, and fell silent. His corpse was turning slowly in midair.

    A silence filled the great chamber. No one spoke.

    Then came a cough, and the old woman’s voice shattered the stillness like spring shattering ice. “Yes!”

    All eyes turned to her.

    She raised a bony finger and pointed at Princox. “I am speaking to the new Captain. Yes, young lad, you may court my daughter and ask for her hand. I doubt muchly she will consent to it, for you are a shifty rascal, and of low account, and have slain your cousin to boot. But the choice will be hers, and yours … and all man else must hold their peace! Let us hear never from the censors nor eugenicists again! I want ten grandchildren at least. The new world is only ten years away.”

    Princox, despite the horrid deed and the smell of blood, found himself smiling.

    “Let us with dignity cover and remove my cousin’s mortal remains!” he cried. “Burial, not recycling, for his corpse! Villain he was, and of villainous black memory, but made in the image of God, as all men be.

    “And let a great mass of thanksgiving be called to which both men of flesh and soldiers of iron be summoned, and bells be rung throughout the ship, that our chaplain might bless this day. The population plateau was an evil dream: it wrought evil deeds! Now that dark dream dies: so let it pass away!”

    So Princox pronounced, waiting to see whether the bridge officers would cheer, and acclaim him Captain, or open fire, and select someone suited to the post from among them. Either way, was equally pleasing to him. He had lost all interest in ratings and rank.

    He smiled at Syren, who smiled shyly back.

    Space still stank, but now there was promise of sweet savor to come.

  • Wherefore by Their Fruits » John C. Wright's Journal (2024)

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