About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
In affectionate memory of
Editor of New Worlds and Science Fantasy
and starter of Non-Stop
It is safer for a novelist to choose as his
subject something he feels about than
something he knows about.
L. P. HARTLEY
For this new edition of an old favourite, I have made some alterations here and there. These occur on forty-eight pages. The adventure remains the same; the characters remain the same; the theme of an idea gobbling up real life remains the same. Only a few words have been changed.
But of course words make all the difference.
A community which cannot or will not realise how insignificant a part of the universe it occupies is not truly civilised. That is to say, it contains a fatal ingredient which renders it, to whatever extent, unbalanced. This is the story of one such community.
An idea, which is man-conceived, unlike most of the myriad effects which comprise our universe, is seldom perfectly balanced. Inevitably, it bears the imprint of man’s own frailty; it may fluctuate from the meagre to the grandiose. This is the story of a grandiose idea.
To the community it was more than an idea: it became existence itself. For the idea, as ideas will, had gone wrong and gobbled up their real lives.
Like a radar echo bounding from a distant object and returning to its source, the sound of Roy Complain’s beating heart seemed to him to fill the clearing. He stood with one hand on the threshold of his compartment, listening to the rage hammering through his arteries.
‘Well, go on out then if you’re going! You said you were going!’
The shrill sarcasm of the voice behind him, Gwenny’s voice, propelled him into the clearing. He slammed the door without looking back, a low growl rasping the back of his throat, and then rubbed his hands together painfully in an attempt to regain control of himself. This was what living with Gwenny meant, the quarrels arising out of nothing and these insane bursts of anger tearing like illness through his being. Nor could it ever be clean anger; it was muddy stuff, and even at its full flood the knowledge was not hidden from him that he would soon be back again, apologizing to her, humiliating himself. Complain needed his woman.
This early in the waking period, several men were about; later, they would be dispersed about their business. A group of them sat on the deck, playing Travel-Up. Complain walked over to them, hands in pockets, and stared moodily down between their ragged heads. The board, painted on the deck, stretched twice as far as the span of a man’s outstretched arms. It was scattered with counters and symbols. One of the players leant forward and moved a pair of his blocks.
‘An outflank on Five,’ he said, with grim triumph, looking up and winking at Complain conspiratorially.
Complain turned away indifferently. For long periods of his life, this game had exerted an almost uncanny attraction on him. He had played it till his adolescent limbs cracked from squatting and his eyes could hardly focus on the silver tokens. On others too, on nearly all the Greene tribe, Travel-Up cast its spell; it gave them a sense of spaciousness and power lacking in their lives. Now Complain was free of the spell, and missed its touch. To be absorbed in anything again would be good.
He ambled moodily down the clearing, hardly noticing the doors on either hand. Instead, he darted his eyes about among the passers-by, as if seeking a signal. He saw Wantage hurrying along to the barricades, instinctively keeping the deformed left side of his face away from others’ eyes. Wantage never played at the long board: he could not tolerate people on both sides of him. Why had the council spared him as a child? Many deformities were born in the Greene tribe, and only the knife awaited them. As boys, they had called Wantage ‘Slotface’, and tormented him; but he had grown up strong and ferocious, which had decided them to adopt a more tolerant attitude towards him: their jibes now were veiled.
Hardly realizing the change from aimlessness to intent, Complain also headed in the direction of the barricades, following Wantage. The best of the compartments, naturally appropriated for council use, were down here. One of the doors was flung open and Lieutenant Greene himself came out, followed by two of his officers. Although Greene was now an old man, he was still an irritable one, and his jerky gait held something yet of the impetuous stride of his youth. His officers, Patcht and Zilliac, walked haughtily beside him, dazers prominent in their belts.
To Complain’s great pleasure, Wantage was panicked by their sudden appearance into saluting his chief. It was a shameful gesture, almost a bringing of the head to the hand rather than the reverse, which was acknowledged by a ghastly grin from Zilliac. Subservience was the general lot, although pride did not admit the fact.
When Complain’s turn came to pass the trio he did it in the customary manner, turning his head away and scowling. Nobody should think he, a hunter, was not the equal of any other man. It was in the Teaching: ‘No man is inferior until he feels the need to show respect for another.’
His spirits now restored, he caught up with Wantage, clapping his hand on the latter’s left shoulder. Spinning in the other direction, Wantage presented a short fencing stick to Complain’s stomach. He had an economical way of moving, like a man closely surrounded by naked blades. His point lodged neatly against Complain’s navel.
‘Easy now, my pretty one. Is that how you always greet a friend?’ Complain asked, turning the point of the stick away.
‘I thought – Expansion, hunter. Why are you not out after meat?’ Wantage asked, sliding his eyes away from Complain.
‘Because I am walking down to the barricades with you. Besides, my pot is full and my dues paid: I have no need of meat.’
They walked in silence, Complain attempting to get on the other’s left side, the other eluding his efforts. Complain was careful not to try him too far, in case Wantage fell on him. Violence and death were pandemic in Quarters, forming a natural balance to the high birth rate, but nobody cheerfully dies for the sake of symmetry.
Near the barricades, the corridor was crowded; Wantage, muttering that he had cleaning work to do, slipped away. He walked close to the wall, narrowly upright, with a sort of bitter dignity in his step.
The leading barricade was a wooden partition with a gate in it which entirely blocked the corridor. Two Guards were posted there continually. There, Quarters ended and the mazes of ponic tangle began. But the barrier was a temporary structure, for the position itself was subject to change.
The Greene tribe was semi-nomadic, forced by its inability to maintain adequate crops or live food to move along on to new ground frequently. This was accomplished by thrusting forward the leading barricade and moving up the rear ones, at the other end of Quarters, a corresponding distance. Such a move was now in progress. The ponic tangle, attacked and demolished ahead, would be allowed to spring up again behind them: the tribe slowly worked its way through the endless corridors like a maggot through a mushy apple.
Beyond the barricade, men worked vigorously, hacking down the tall ponic stalks, the edible sap, miltex, spurting out above their blades. As they were felled, the stalks were inverted to preserve as much sap as possible. This would be drained off and the hollow poles dried, cut to standard lengths and used eventually for a multitude of purposes. Almost on top of the busy blades, other sections of the plants were also being harvested: the leaves for medicinal use, the young shoots for table delicacies, the seed for various uses, as food, as buttons, as loose ballast in the Quarters’ version of tambourines, as counters for the Travel-Up boards, as toys for babies (into whose all-sampling mouths they were too large to cram).
The hardest job in the task of clearing ponics was breaking up the interlacing root structure, which lay like a steel mesh under the grit, its lower tendrils biting deep into the deck. As it was chopped out, other men with spades cleared the humus into sacks; here the humus was particularly deep, almost two feet of it covering the deck: evidence that these were unexplored parts, across which no other tribe had ever worked. The filled sacks were carted back to Quarters, where they would be emptied to provide new fields in new rooms.
Another body of men were also at work before the barricade, and these Complain watched with especial interest. They were of a more exalted rank than the others present; they were Guards, recruited only from the hunters, and the possibility existed that one day, through fortune or favour, Complain might rise to that enviable class.
As the almost solid wall of tangle was bitten back, doors were revealed, presenting black faces to the onlookers. The rooms behind these doors would yield mysteries: a thousand strange articles, useful, useless or meaningless, which had once been the property of the vanished race of Giants. The duty of the Guards was to break open these ancient tombs and appropriate whatever lay within for the good of the tribe, meaning themselves. In due time the loot would be distributed or destroyed, depending on the whim of the council. Much that emerged into the light of Quarters in this fashion was declared by the Lieutenancy to be dangerous, and was burnt.
The business of opening these doors was not without its hazards, imaginary if not real. Rumour had it in Quarters that other small tribes, also struggling for existence in the tangle warrens, had silently vanished away after opening such doors.
Complain by now was not the only one caught by the perennial fascination of watching people work. Several women, each with an ample quota of children, stood by the barricade, getting in the way of the procession of humus and ponic bearers. To the constant small whine of flies, from which Quarters was never free, was added the chatter of small tongues: and to this chorus the Guards broke down the next door. A moment’s silence fell, in which even the workers paused to stare half in fear at the opening.
The new room was a disappointment. It did not even contain the skeleton of a Giant to horrify and fascinate. It was a small store merely, lined with shelves loaded with little bags. The little bags were full of variously coloured powders. A bright yellow and a scarlet one fell and broke, forming two fans on the deck, and in the air two intermingling clouds. Shouts of delight from the children, who rarely saw much colour, caused the Guards to bark orders brusquely and begin to carry their discoveries away, forming a living chain to a truck behind the barricade.
Aware of a vague sense of anti-climax, Complain drifted away. Perhaps, after all, he would go hunting.
‘But why is there light in the tangles when nobody is there to need it?’
The question came to Complain above the general bustle. He turned and saw the questioner was one of several small boys who clustered round a big man squatting in their midst. One or two mothers stood by, smiling indulgently, their hands idly fanning away the flies.
‘There has to be light for the ponics to grow, just as you could not live in the dark,’ came the answer to the boy. Complain saw the man who spoke was Bob Fermour, a slow fellow fit only for labouring in the fieldrooms. He was genial – rather more so than the Teaching entirely countenanced – and consequently popular with the children. Complain recalled that Fermour was reputed to be a storyteller, and felt suddenly eager to be diverted. Without his anger he was empty.
‘What was there before the ponics were there?’ a little girl demanded. In their unpractised way, the children were trying to start Fermour on a story.
‘Tell ’em the tale about the world, Bob!’ one of the mothers advised.
Fermour glanced quizzically up at Complain.
‘Don’t mind me,’ Complain said. ‘Theories are less than flies to me.’ The powers of the tribe discouraged theorizing, or any sort of thought not on severely practical lines; hence Fermour’s hesitation.
‘Well, this is all guesswork, because we don’t have any records of what happened in the world before the Greene tribe began,’ Fermour said. ‘Or if we do find records, they don’t make much sense.’ He glanced sharply at the adults in his audience before adding quickly, ‘Because there are more important things to do than puzzle over old legends.’
‘What is the tale about the world, Bob? Is it exciting?’ a boy asked impatiently.
Fermour smoothed the boy’s fringe back from his eyes and said earnestly, ‘It is the most exciting tale that could possibly be, because it concerns all of us, and how we live. Now the world is a wonderful place. It is constructed of layers and layers of deck, like this one, and these layers do not end, because they eventually turn a circle on to themselves. So you could walk on and on for ever and never reach the end of the world. And all those layers are filled with mysterious places, some good, some evil; and all those corridors are blocked with ponics.’
‘What about the Forwards people?’ the boy asked. ‘Do they have green faces?’
‘We are coming to them,’ Fermour said, lowering his voice so that the youthful audience crowded nearer. ‘I have told you what happens if you keep to the lateral corridors of the world. But if you can get on to the main corridor you get on to a highway that takes you straight to distant parts of the world. And then you may arrive in the territory of Forwards.’
‘Have they really all got two heads?’ a little girl asked.
‘Of course not,’ Fermour said. ‘They are more civilized than our small tribe’ – again the scanning of his adult listeners – ‘but we know little about them because there are many obstacles between their lands and ours. It must be the duty of all of you, as you grow up, to try and find out more about our world. Remember there is much we do not know, and that outside our world may be other worlds of which we cannot at present guess.’
The children seemed impressed, but one of the women laughed and said, ‘Fat lot of good it’ll do them, guessing about something nobody knows exists.’
Mentally, Complain agreed with her as he walked away. There were a lot of these theories circulating now, all differing, all unsettling, none encouraged by authority. He wondered if it would improve his standing to denounce Fermour; but unfortunately everybody ignored Fermour: he was too slow. Only last wake, he had been publicly stroked for sloth in the fieldrooms.
Complain’s more immediate problem was, should he go hunting? A memory of how often recently he had walked restlessly like this, to the barricade and back, caught him unawares. He clenched his fists. Time passing, opportunities lacking, and always something missing, missing. Again – as he had done since a child – Complain whirled furiously round his brain, searching for a factor which promised to be there and was not, ever. Dimly, he felt he was preparing himself – but quite involuntarily – for a crisis. It was like a fever brewing, but this would be worse than a fever.
He broke into a run. His hair, long and richly black, flopped over his wide eyes. His expression became disturbed. Usually his young face showed strong and agreeable lines under a slight plumpness. The line of jaw was true, the mouth in repose heroic. Yet over the countenance as a whole worked a wasting bitterness; and this desolation was a look common to almost the whole tribe. It was a wise part of the Teaching which said that one man’s eyes should not meet another’s directly.
Complain ran almost blindly, sweat bursting out on his forehead. Sleep or wake, it was perpetually warm in Quarters, and sweat started easily. Nobody he passed regarded him with interest: much senseless running took place in the tribe, many men fled from inner phantoms. Complain only knew he had to get back to Gwenny. Women held the magic salve of forgetfulness.
She was standing motionless, a cup of tea in her hand, when he broke into their compartment. She pretended not to notice him, but her whole attitude changed, the narrow planes of her face going tense. She was sturdily built, her stocky body contrasting with the thinness of her face. This firmness seemed to emphasize itself now, as though she braced herself against a physical attack.
‘Don’t look like that, Gwenny. I’m not your mortal enemy.’ It was not what he had meant to say, nor was its tone placating enough, but the sight of her brought some of his anger heading back.
‘Yes, you are my mortal enemy!’ she said distinctly, still looking away. ‘No one I hate like you.’
‘Give me a sip of your tea then, and we’ll both hope it poisons me.’
‘I wish it would,’ she said venomously, passing over the cup.
He knew her well enough. Her rages were not like his; his had to subside slowly; hers were there, then gone: she would make love to him within a moment of slapping his face. And then she made love best.
‘Cheer up,’ he said. ‘You know we were quarrelling over nothing, as usual.’
‘Nothing! Is Lidya nothing? Just because she died at birth … our only little babe, and you call her nothing.’
‘Better to call her nothing than use her as a weapon between us, eh?’ As Gwenny took the cup back, he slid his hand up her bare arm and slipped his fingers adroitly into the top of her blouse.
‘Stop it!’ she screamed, struggling. ‘Don’t be so foul! Is that all you can think of, even when I’m talking to you? Let me go, you nasty beast.’
But he did not. Instead, he put his other arm round her waist and pulled her closer. She tried to kick. He neatly butted her behind the knee with his knee, and they fell to the floor. When he brought his face close, she tried to bite his nose.
‘Take your hands away!’ she gasped.
‘Gwenny … Gwenny, come on, sweet,’ he coaxed.
Her manner changed abruptly. The haggard watchfulness of her face was submerged in dreaminess.
‘Will you take me hunting with you after?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Anything you say.’
What Gwenny said or did not say, however, had small effect on the irresistible roll of events. Two girls, Ansa and Daise, remote relations by marriage of Gwenny’s, arrived breathless to say that her father, Ozbert Bergass, had taken a turn for the worse and was asking for her. He had fallen ill with the trailing rot a sleep-wake ago, and Gwenny had already been once to his distant apartment to see him. It was thought he would not last long: people who fell ill in Quarters seldom lasted long.
‘I must go to him,’ Gwenny said. The independence children had to maintain of their parents was relaxed at these times of ultimate crisis; the law permitted visiting of sick beds.
‘He was a great man in the tribe,’ Complain said solemnly. Ozbert Bergass had been senior guide for many sleep-wakes, and his loss would be felt. All the same, Complain did not offer to go and see his father-in-law; sentiment was one of the weaknesses the Greene tribe strove to eradicate. Instead, when Gwenny had gone, he went down to the market to see Ern Roffery the Valuer, to enquire the current price of meat.
On his way, he passed the pens. They were fuller of animals than ever before, domesticated animals fitter and more tender than the wild ones the hunters caught. Roy Complain was no thinker, and there seemed to him a paradox here he could not explain to himself. Never before had the tribe been so prosperous or its farms so thriving; the lowest labourer tasted meat once in a cycle of four sleep-wakes. Yet Complain himself was less prosperous than formerly. He hunted more, but found less and received less for it. Several of the other hunters, experiencing the same thing, had already thrown up the hunt and turned to other work.
This deteriorating state of affairs Complain simply attributed to a grudge Roffery the Valuer held against the hunter clan, being unable to integrate the lower prices Roffery allowed for wild meat with the abundance of domestic fare.
Consequently, he pushed through the market crowd and greeted the valuer in surly fashion.
‘’spansion to your ego,’ he said grudgingly.
‘Your expense,’ the Valuer replied genially, looking up from an immense list he was painfully compiling. ‘Running meat’s down today, hunter. It’ll take a good sized carcass to earn six loaves.’
‘Hem’s guts! And you told me wheat was down the last time I saw you, you twisting rogue.’
‘Keep a civil turn of phrase, Complain: your own carcass isn’t worth a crust to me. So I did tell you wheat was down. It is down – but running meat’s down more.’
The Valuer preened his great moustaches and burst out laughing. Several other men idling nearby laughed too. One of them, a burly, stinking fellow called Cheap, bore a pile of round cans he was hoping to exchange in the market. With a savage kick, Complain sent the cans flying. Roaring with rage, Cheap scrambled to retrieve them, fighting to get them back from others already snatching them up. At this Roffery laughed the louder, but the tide of his humour had changed, and was no longer against Complain.
‘You’d be worse off living in Forwards,’ he said consolingly. ‘They are a people of miracles there. Create beasts for eating from their breath, catching them in the air, they do. They don’t need hunters at all.’ He slammed violently at a fly settling on his neck. ‘And they have vanquished the curse of flying insects.’
‘Rubbish!’ said an old man standing nearby.
‘Don’t contradict me, Eff,’ the Valuer said. ‘Not if you value your dotage higher than droppings.’
‘So it is rubbish,’ Complain said. ‘Who would be fool enough to imagine a place without flies?’
‘I can imagine a place without Complains,’ roared Cheap, who had now recovered his cans and stood ferociously by Complain’s shoulder. They faced each other now, poised for trouble.
‘Go to, larrup him,’ the Valuer called to Cheap. ‘Show him I want no hunters interrupting my business.’
‘Since when was a scavenger of tins of more merit in Quarters than a hunter?’ the old man called Eff asked generally. ‘I warn you, a bad time’s coming to this tribe. I’m only thankful I shan’t be here to see it.’
Growls of derision for the old man and dislike for his sentiments arose on all sides. Suddenly tired of the company, Complain edged away and made off. He found the old man following and nodded cautiously to him.
‘I can see it all,’ Eff said, evidently anxious to continue his tidings of gloom. ‘We’re growing soft. Soon nobody will bother to leave Quarters or clear the ponics. There won’t be any incentives. No brave men will be left – only eaters and players. Disease and death and attacks by other tribes will come; I see it as sure as I see you. Soon only tangles will exist where the Greene tribe was.’
‘I have heard that Forwards folk are good,’ Complain said, cutting into this tirade. ‘That they have sense and not magic.’
“You’ve been listening to that fellow Fermour then,’ Eff replied grumpily, ‘or one of his ilk. Some men are trying to blind us to who are our real enemies. I call them men but they aren’t men, they’re – Outsiders. That’s what they are, hunter, Outsiders: supernatural entities. I’d have ’em killed if I had my way. I’d have a witch-hunt. Yes, I would. But we don’t have witch-hunts here any more. When I was a kid we always used to be having them. I tell you, the whole tribe’s going soft, soft. If I had my way …’
His breathless voice broke off, drying up perhaps before some old megalomaniac vision of massacre. Complain moved away from him almost unnoticed: he saw Gwenny approaching across the clearing.
‘Your father?’ he enquired.
She made a faint gesture with one hand, indicative of nothing.
‘You know the trailing rot,’ she said tonelessly. ‘He will be making the Long Journey before another sleep-wake is spent.’
‘In the midst of life we are in death,’ he said solemnly: Bergass was a man of honour.
‘And the Long Journey has always begun,’ she replied, finishing the quotation from the Litany for him. ‘There is no more to be done. Meanwhile, I have my father’s heart and your promise of a hunting. Let us go now, Roy. Take me into the ponics with you – please.’
‘Running meat’s down to six loaves a carcass,’ he told her. ‘It’s not worth going, Gwenny.’
‘You can buy a lot with a loaf. A pot for my father’s skull, for instance.’
‘That’s the duty of your step-mother.’
‘I want to come with you hunting.’
He knew that note in her voice. Turning angrily on his heel, he made for the leading barricade without another word. Gwenny followed demurely.
Hunting had become Gwenny’s great passion. It gave her freedom from Quarters, for no woman was allowed to leave the tribal area alone, and it gave her excitement. She took no part in the killing, but she crept like Complain’s shadow after the beasts who inhabited the tangles.
Despite its growing stock of domesticated animals and the consequent slump in the value of wild stock, Quarters had not enough meat for its increasing needs. The tribe was always in a state of unbalance; it had only been formed two generations ago, by Grandfather Greene, and would not be entirely self-sufficient for some while. Indeed, a serious accident or setback might still shatter it, sending its component families to seek what reception they could find with other tribes.
Complain and Gwenny followed a tangle trail for some way beyond the leading Quarters barricade and then branched into the thicket. The one or two hunters and catchers they had been passing gave way to solitude, the crackling solitude of the tangles. Complain led them up a small companionway, pushing through the crowded stalks rather than cutting them, so that their trail should be less obvious. At the top he halted, Gwenny peering eagerly, anxiously over his shoulder.
The individual ponics pressed up towards the light in bursts of short-lived energy, clustering overhead. The general illumination was consequently of a sickly kind, rather better for imagining things in than actually seeing them. Added to this were the flies and clouds of tiny midges that drifted among the foliage like smoke: vision was limited and hallucinatory. But there was no doubt a man stood watching them, a man with beady eyes and chalk-white forehead.
He was three paces ahead of them. He stood alertly. His great torso was bare and he wore only shorts. He seemed to be looking at a point a little to their left. Yet so uncertain was the light that the harder one peered the harder it was to be sure of anything, except that the man was there. And then he was not there.
‘Was it a ghost?’ Gwenny hissed.
Slipping his dazer into his hand, Complain pressed forward. He could almost persuade himself he had been tricked by a pattern of shadow, so silently had the watcher vanished. Now there remained no sign of him but trampled seedlings where he had stood.
‘Don’t let’s go on,’ Gwenny whispered nervously. ‘Suppose it was a Forwards man – or an Outsider.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ he said. ‘You know there are wild men who have run amok and live solitary in the tangles. He will not harm us. If he had wanted to shoot us, he would have done so then.’
All the same, his skin crawled uneasily to think that even now this stray might be drawing a bead on them, or otherwise planning their deaths as surely and invisibly as if he had been a disease.
‘But his face was so white,’ Gwenny protested.
He took her arm firmly, and led her forward. The sooner they were away from the spot, the better.
They moved fairly swiftly, once crossing a pig run, and passed into a side corridor. Here Complain squatted with his back to the wall and made Gwenny do the same.
‘Listen, and see if we are being followed,’ he said.
The ponics slithered and rustled, and countless small insects gnawed into the silence. Together, they formed a din which seemed to Complain to grow until it would split his head. And in the middle of the din was a note which should not be there.
Gwenny had heard it too.
‘We are getting near another tribe,’ she whispered. ‘There’s one down this alley.’
The sound they could hear was the inevitable one of babies crying and calling, which announced a tribe long before its barricades were reached, even before it could be smelt. Only a few wakes ago, this area had been pig territory, which meant that a tribe had come up from another level and was slowly approaching the Greene hunting preserves.
‘We’ll report this when we get back,’ Complain said, and led her the other way.
He worked easily along, counting the turns as they went, so as not to get lost. When a low archway appeared to their left, they moved through it, picking up a pig trail. This was the area known as Sternstairs, where a great hill led down to lower levels. A crashing sounded from over the brink of the slope, followed by an unmistakeable squealing. Pig!
Motioning Gwenny to stay where she was at the top of the hill, Complain, dexterously sliding his bow from his shoulder and fitting an arrow to it, commenced the descent. His hunter’s blood was up, all worries forgotten, and he moved like a wraith. Gwenny’s eye sped him an unnoticed message of encouragement.
With room for once to reach something like their full stature, the ponics on the lower level had grown up into thin trees, arching overhead. Complain slipped to the brink of the drop, peering down through the tall ponies. An animal moved down there, rooting contentedly; he could see no litter, although the squealing had sounded like the cries of small creatures.
As he worked cautiously down the slope, also overwhelmed with the ubiquitous tangle, he felt a momentary pang for the life he was about to take. A pig’s life! He squashed the pang at once; the Teaching did not approve of ‘softness’.
There were three piglets beside the sow. Two were black and one brown: shaggy, long-legged creatures like wolves, with prehensile noses and scoop jaws. The sow obligingly turned a broadflank for the readying arrow. She raised her head suspiciously and probed with her little eye through the poles round her.
‘Roy! Roy! Help – ’
The cry came piercingly from above: Gwenny’s voice, raised to the striking pitch of fear.
The pig family took fright instantly, breaking through the stalks at speed, the young determinedly keeping up their mother’s pace. Their noise did not quite cover the sounds of a scuffle above the hunter’s head.
Complain did not hesitate. At the startlement of Gwenny’s first cry, he had dropped his arrow. Without attempting to pick it up, he whipped the bow over his shoulder, pulled out his dazer and dashed back up the slope of Sternstairs. But a stretch of uphill tangle is not good running ground. When he got to the top, Gwenny was gone.
A crashing sounded to his left and he ran that way. He ran doubled up, making himself as small a target as possible, and was rewarded by the sight of two bearded men bearing Gwenny off. She was not struggling; they must have knocked her unconscious.
It was the third man Complain did not see who nearly settled him. This man had dropped behind his two companions, stepping back into the stalks to cover their retreat. Now he set an arrow whipping back along the corridor. It twanged past Complain’s ear. He dropped instantly, avoiding a second arrow, and grovelled quickly back along the trail. Being dead helped nobody.
Silence now, the usual crumbling noise of insane plant growth. Being alive helped nobody either. The facts hit him one by one and then altogether. He had lost the pigs; he had lost Gwenny; he would have to face the council and explain why they were now a woman short. Shock for a moment obscured the salient fact: he had lost Gwenny. Complain did not love her, often he hated her; but she was his, necessary.
Comfortingly, anger oiled up in his mind, drowning the other emotions. Anger! This was the salve the Teaching taught. Wrenching up handfuls of root-bound soil, he pelted them from him, distorting his face, working up the anger, creaming it up like batter in a bowl. Mad, mad, mad … he flung himself flat, beating the ground, cursing and writhing. But always quietly.
At last the fit worked itself off, and he was left empty. For a long time he just sat there, head in hand, his brain washed as bare as tidal mud. Now there was nothing for it but to get up and go back to Quarters. He had to report. In his head his weary thoughts ran.
I could sit here forever. The breeze so slight, never changing its temperature, the light only seldom dark. The ponics rearing up and failing, decaying round me. I should come to no harm but death …
Only if I stay alive can I find the something missed, the big something. Something I promised myself as a kid. Perhaps now I’ll never find it, or Gwenny could have found it for me – no she couldn’t: she was a substitute for it, admit it. Perhaps it does not exist. But when something so big has non-existence, that in itself is existence. A hole. A wall. As the priest says, there’s been a calamity.
I can almost imagine something. It’s big. Big as … you couldn’t have anything bigger than the world or it would be the world. World, ship, earth, planet … other people’s theories, no concern of mine: theories solve nothing. Mere unhappy muddles, more unhappy muddles, middles, mutters.
Get up, you weak fool.
He got himself up. If there was no reason for returning to Quarters, there was equally no reason for sitting here. Possibly what most delayed his return was the foreknowledge of all the practised indifference there: the guarded look away, the smirk at Gwenny’s probable fate, the punishment for her loss. He headed slowly back through the tangle.
Complain whistled before coming into view of the clearing in front of the barricade, was identified, and entered Quarters. During the short period of his absence a startling change had taken place; even in his dull state, he did not fail to notice it.
That clothing was a problem in the Greene tribe the great variety of dress clearly demonstrated. No two people dressed alike, from necessity rather than choice, individuality not being a trait fostered among them. The function of dress in the tribe was less to warm the body than to serve, Janus-faced, as guard of modesty and agent of display; and to be a rough and ready guide to social standing. Only the élite, the Guards, the hunters and people like the valuer, could usually manage something like a uniform. The rest muddled by with a variety of fabrics and skins.
But now the drab and the old in costume were as bright as the newest. The lowliest blockhead of a labourer sported flaring green rags!
‘What the devil’s happening here, Butch?’ Complain asked a passing man.
‘Expansion to your ego, friend. The guards found a cache of dye earlier. Get yourself a soak! There’s going to be a honey of a celebration.’
Further on, a crowd was gathered, chattering excitedly. A series of stoves were ranged along the deck; over them, like so many witches’ cauldrons, boiled the largest utensils available. Yellow, scarlet, pink, mauve, black, navy blue, skyblue, green and copper, the separate liquids boiled, bubbled and steamed, and round them churned the people, dipping one garment here, another there. Through the thick steam their unusual animation sounded shrilly.
This was not the only use to which the dye was being put. Once it had been decreed that the dye was no use to the council, the Guards had thrown the bags out for anyone to have. Many bags had been slit open and their contents thrown against walls or floor. Now the whole village was decorated with round bursts or slashes or fans of bright colour.
Dancing had started. In still wet clothes, trailing rainbows which merged into brown puddles, women and men joined hands and began to whirl about the open spaces. A hunter jumped on to a box, beginning to sing. A woman in a yellow robe leapt up with him, clapping her hands. Another rattled a tambourine. More and more joined in the throng, singing, stamping round the cauldrons, up the deck, turning about, breathlessly but gladly. They were drunk on colour: most of them had hardly known it before.
Now the artificers and some of the Guards, aloof at first, joined in too, unable to resist the excitement in the humid air. The men were pouring in from the fieldrooms, sneaking back from the various barricades, eager for their share of pleasure.
Complain eyed it all dourly, turned on his heel and went to report to the Lieutenancy.
An officer heard his story in silence and curtly ordered him before Lieutenant Greene himself.
Losing a woman could be a serious matter. The Greene tribe comprised some nine hundred souls, of which nearly half were under age and only about one hundred and thirty were women. Mating duels were the commonest form of trouble in Quarters.
He was marched in front of the Lieutenant. Guard-flanked, the old man sat at an ancient desk, eyes carefully guarded under grizzled eyebrows. Without a movement or sign he conveyed displeasure.
‘Expansion to your ego, sir,’ Complain offered humbly.
‘At your expense,’ came the stock response. And then, growled, ‘How did you manage to lose your woman, Hunter Roy Complain?’
Haltingly, he explained how she had been seized at the top of Sternstairs. ‘It may have been the work of Forwards,’ he suggested.
‘Don’t raise that bogey here,’ Zilliac, one of Greene’s attendants, barked. ‘We’ve heard those tales of super-races before, and don’t believe them. The Greene tribe is master of everything this side of Deadways.’
As Complain gave his story, the Lieutenant grew gradually more angry. His limbs began to shake; his eyes filled with tears; his mouth distorted till his chin was glistening with saliva; his nostrils filled with mucus. The desk commenced to rock in unison with his fury. As he rocked, he growled, and under the shaggy white hair his skin turned a pale maroon. Through his fear Complain had to admit it was a brilliant, daunting performance.
Its climax came when the Lieutenant, vibrating like a top with the wrath pouring from him, fell suddenly to the ground and lay still. At once Zilliac and his fellow, Patcht, stood over the body, dazers at the ready, faces twitching with reciprocal anger.
Slowly, very slowly and tremblingly, the Lieutenant climbed back on to his chair, exhausted by the necessary ritual. ‘He’ll kill himself one day, doing that,’ Complain told himself. The thought warmed him a little.
‘Now to decide your punishments under the law,’ the old man said, in a husk of a voice. He glanced round the room in a helpless fashion.
‘Gwenny was not a good woman for the tribe, despite her brilliant father,’ Complain said, moistening his lips. ‘She couldn’t produce any children, sir. We did have one, a girl, who died before weaning. She could not have any more, sir – Marapper the priest said so.’
‘Marapper’s a fool!’ zilliac exclaimed.
‘Your Gwenny was a well-figured girl,’ Patcht said. ‘Nicely set up. Quite a beddable girl.’
‘You know what the laws say, young man,’ the Lieutenant said. ‘My grandfather formed them when he formed the tribe. They are next to the Teaching in importance in our … in our lives. What is all that row outside? Yes, he was a great man, my grandfather. I remember on the day he died he sent for me …’
Fear glands were still working copiously in Complain, but in a sudden moment of detachment he saw the four of them, each pursuing an elusive thread in his own being, conscious of the others only as interpretations or manifestations of his own fears. They were isolated, and every man’s hand was against his neighbour.
‘What shall the sentence be?’ Zilliac growled, cutting into the Lieutenant’s reminiscences.
‘Oh, ah, let me see. You are already punished by losing your woman, Complain. There is no other available woman for you at present. What is all that noise outside?’
‘He must be punished or it may be thought you are losing your grip,’ Patcht suggested craftily.
‘Oh, quite, quite; I was going to punish him. Your suggestion was unnecessary, Patcht. Hunter – er, huh, Complain, for the next six sleep-wakes you will suffer six strokes, to be administered by the Guard captain before each sleep, starting now. Good. You can go. And, Zilliac, for hem sake go and see what all that row is outside.’
So Complain found himself outside again. A wall of noise and colour met him. Everyone seemed to be here, dancing senselessly in an orgy of enjoyment. Normally he would have flung himself in too, being as eager as anyone to throw off the oppressive routines of life; but in his present mood he merely slunk round the outside of the crowd, avoiding their eyes.
Nevertheless, he delayed the return to his compartment. (He would be turned out of there now: single men did not have their own rooms.) He loitered sheepishly on the fringes of the merriment, his stomach heavy with expectation of the coming punishment, while the bright dance whirled by. Several groups, divided from the main one in biparous fashion, jigged rapturously to the sound of stringed instruments. The noise was incessant, and in the frenetic movements of the dancers – heads jerking, fingers twitching – an onlooker might have found cause for alarm. But there were few non-participants. The tall, saturnine doctor, Lindsey, was one; Fermour was another, too slow for this whirl; Wantage was another, pressing his maimed face away from the throng; the Public Stroker was another. The latter had his appointments to keep, and at the proper time appeared before Complain with a guard escort. Roughly, the clothes were stripped from his back and the first instalment of his punishment was administered.
A crowd of eyes usually watched these events. For once there was something better happening: Complain suffered almost privately. Tomorrow he might expect more attention.
Pulling his shirt down over his wounds, he went sickly back to his compartment. He entered, and found Marapper the priest awaiting him.