Authors: Terry Carr
Tags: #Science Fiction
“I can't trust them,” Manning said, his voice automatically growing louder in response to Rynason's own. He stepped forward, pushing Mara in front of him. “They're not human, Lee—you keep forgetting that, for some reason. Think of it as clearing the area of hostile native animal life—that comes under the duties of a governor, now doesn't it?”
“And what about the men outside? Did you put it that way to them?”
“They do what I say!” Manning snapped. “They don't give a damn who they kill. There's going to be fighting here whether it's against the Hirlaji or between the townsmen. As governor, I'd rather they took it all out on the horses here. Domestic tranquillity, shall we say?” He was smiling now; he had everything in control.
“So that's your purpose?” Rynason said. There was anger in his voice, feigned or real—perhaps both. But his voice rose still higher. “Is butchery your only goal in life, Manning?”
Manning stepped toward him again, his eyes narrowing. “Butchery? It's better than no purpose at all, Lee! It'll get me off of these damned outworlds eventually, if I'm a good enough butcher. And I mean to be, Lee ... I mean to be.”
Rynason turned his back on the man in contempt, and walked past Horng to the base of the ancient altar. He looked up at the Eye of Kor, dim now when not in use. He turned.
it better, Manning?” he shouted. “Does it give you a right to live, while you slaughter the Hirlaji?”
Manning cursed under his breath, and took a quick step toward Rynason; his hard, black shadow leaped up the wall.
It gives me any right I can take!”
It happened quickly. Manning was now beside the massive figure of the alien, Horng; in his anger he had loosened his grip on Mara. He raised the disintegrator toward Rynason.
And Horng's huge fist smashed it from his hand.
Manning never knew what hit him. Before he had even realized that the disintegrator was gone Horng had him. One heavy hand circled his throat; the other gripped his shoulder. The alien lifted him viciously and broke him like a stick; Rynason could almost hear the man's neck break, so final was that twist of the alien's hands.
Horng lifted the lifeless body above his head and hurled it to the floor with such force that the man's head was stoved in and his body lay twisted and motionless where it fell.
Afterwards there was silence in the room, save for the distant sound of the wind against the building outside. Horng stood looking down at the broken body at his feet, his expression as unfathomable as it had ever been. Mara stared in shocked silence at the alien.
Rynason walked slowly to the mike lying beside the interpreter. He raised it.
“You can move quickly, old leather, when there's a reason for it,” he said.
Horng turned his head to him and silently dipped it to one side.
Rynason lifted the broken form of Manning's body and carried it out to the top of the steps leading down from the temple. Mara went with him, carrying the handlight; it fell harshly on Manning's crushed features as Rynason waited atop the huge, steep stairway. The wind tore at his hair, whipping it wildly around his head ... but Manning's head was caked with blood. In a moment, the men from the town came out from cover; they stood at the base of the steps, indecisive.
They too were waiting for something.
Rynason hefted the body up over one shoulder and drew a disintegrator with the hand he had freed. Slowly, then, he descended the steps.
When he had neared the bottom the circle of men fell back. They were uneasy and sullen ... but they had seen the power of the disintegrator, and now they saw Manning's crushed body.
Rynason bent and dropped the body to the ground. He looked up coldly at the ring of faces and said, “One of the Hirlaji did that with his hands. That's all—just his hands.”
For a moment everyone was still ... and then one of the men broke from the crowd, snarling, with a heavy knife in his hand. He stopped just outside the white circle of the handlight, the knife extended before him. Rynason raised the disintegrator and trained it on him, his face frozen into a cold mask.
The man stood in indecision.
And from the crowd behind him another figure stepped forward. It was Malhomme, and his lips were drawn back in disgust. He struck with an open hand, the side of his palm catching the man's neck beneath his ear. The man fell sprawling to the ground, and lay still.
Malhomme looked at him for a moment, then he turned to the men behind him. “That's enough!” he shouted. “
” Angrily, he looked down at the crumpled form of Manning's body. “Bury him!” he said.
There was still no movement from the men; Malhomme grabbed two of them roughly and shoved them out of the crowd. They hesitated, looking quickly from Malhomme to the disintegrator in Rynason's hand, then bent to pick up the body.
“It's a measure of man's eternal mercy,” said Malhomme acidly, “that at least we bury each other.” He stared at the men in the mob, and the fury in his eyes broke them at last. Muttering, shrugging, shaking their heads, they dispersed, going off in two and threes to take cover from the wind-driven sand.
Malhomme turned to Rynason and Mara, his face relaxing at last. The hard lines around his mouth softened into a rueful smile as he put his arm around Rynason's shoulder. “We can all take shelter in the buildings here for the night. You could use some rest, Lee Rynason—you look like hell. And maybe I can put a temporary splint on your arm, woman.”
They found a nearby building where the roof had long ago fallen in, but the walls were still standing. While Malhomme ministered to Mara he did not stop talking for a moment; Rynason couldn't tell whether he was trying to keep the girl's mind off the pain or whether he was simply unwinding his emotions.
“You know, I've preached at these men for so many years I've got callouses in my throat. And one of these days maybe they'll know what I'm talking about, so that I won't have to shout.” He shrugged. “Well, it would be a dull world, where I didn't have a good excuse to shout. Sometimes you might ask your alien friends up there, Lee ... what did they get out of choosing peace?”
“They didn't choose it,” said Rynason.
Malhomme grimaced. “I wonder if anybody, anywhere, ever will. Maybe the Outsiders did, but they're not around to tell us about it. It's an intriguing question to think about, if you don't have anything to drink ... what do you do, when there's nothing more to fight against, or even for?”
He straightened up; the splint on Mara's arm was set now. He settled her back in a drift of sand as comfortably as possible.
“I've got another question,” Rynason said. “What were you doing among those men who came at me on the steps earlier?”
Malhomme's face broke into a wide grin. “That was a suicidal rush on you, Lee. A damned stupid tactic ... a rush like that is only as strong as the weakest coward in it. All it takes is one man to break and run, and everybody else will run too. So it was easy for me to break it up.”
Rynason couldn't help chuckling at that; and once he had started, the tension that had gripped him for the past several hours found release in a full, stomach-shaking laugh.
“Rene Malhomme,” he gasped, “that's the kind of leadership this planet needs!”
Mara smiled up from where she lay. “You know,” she said, “now that Manning is dead they'll have to find someone else to be governor....”
“Don't be ridiculous,” said Malhomme.