- Author: Evelyn E. Smith
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By EVELYN E. SMITH
Illustrated by DILLON
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction March 1957.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Snaddra had but one choice in its fight
to afford to live belowground—underhandedly
pretend theirs was an aboveboard society!
"Go Away from me, Skkiru," Larhgan said, pushing his hand off her arm. "A beggar does not associate with the high priestess of Snaddra."
"But the Earthmen aren't due for another fifteen minutes," Skkiru protested.
"Of what importance are fifteen minutes compared to eternity!" she exclaimed. Her lovely eyes fuzzed softly with emotion. "You don't seem to realize, Skkiru, that this isn't just a matter of minutes or hours. It's forever."
"Forever!" He looked at her incredulously. "You mean we're going to keep this up as a permanent thing? You're joking!"
Bbulas groaned, but Skkiru didn't care about that. The sad, sweet way Larhgan shook her beautiful head disturbed him much more, and when she said, "No, Skkiru, I am not joking," a tiny pang of doubt and apprehension began to quiver in his second smallest left toe.
"This is, in effect, good-by," she continued. "We shall see each other again, of course, but only from a distance. On feast days, perhaps you may be permitted to kiss the hem of my robe ... but that will be all."
Skkiru turned to the third person present in the council chamber. "Bbulas, this is your fault! It was all your idea!"
There was regret on the Dilettante's thin face—an obviously insincere regret, the younger man knew, since he was well aware how Bbulas had always felt about the girl.
"I am sorry, Skkiru," Bbulas intoned. "I had fancied you understood. This is not a game we are playing, but a new way of life we are adopting. A necessary way of life, if we of Snaddra are to keep on living at all."
"It's not that I don't love you, Skkiru," Larhgan put in gently, "but the welfare of our planet comes first."
She had been seeing too many of the Terrestrial fictapes from the library, Skkiru thought resentfully. There was too damn much Terran influence on this planet. And this new project was the last straw.
No longer able to control his rage and grief, he turned a triple somersault in the air with rage. "Then why was I made a beggar and she the high priestess? You arranged that purposely, Bbulas. You—"
"Now, Skkiru," Bbulas said wearily, for they had been through all this before, "you know that all the ranks and positions were distributed by impartial lot, except for mine, and, of course, such jobs as could carry over from the civilized into the primitive."
Bbulas breathed on the spectacles he was wearing, as contact lenses were not considered backward enough for the kind of planet Snaddra was now supposed to be, and attempted to wipe them dry on his robe. However, the thick, jewel-studded embroidery got in his way and so he was forced to lift the robe and wipe all three of the lenses on the smooth, soft, spun metal of his top underskirt.
"After all," he went on speaking as he wiped, "I have to be high priest, since I organized this culture and am the only one here qualified to administer it. And, as the president himself concurred in these arrangements, I hardly think you—a mere private citizen—have the right to question them."
"Just because you went to school in another solar system," Skkiru said, whirling with anger, "you think you're so smart!"
"I won't deny that I do have educational and cultural advantages which were, unfortunately, not available to the general populace of this planet. However, even under the old system, I was always glad to utilize my superior attainments as Official Dilettante for the good of all and now—"
"Sure, glad to have a chance to rig this whole setup so you could break up things between Larhgan and me. You've had your eye on her for some time."
Skkiru coiled his antennae at Bbulas, hoping the insult would provoke him into an unbecoming whirl, but the Dilettante remained calm. One of the chief outward signs of Terran-type training was self-control and Bbulas had been thoroughly terranized.
I hate Terrestrials, Skkiru said to himself. I hate Terra. The quiver of anxiety had risen up his leg and was coiling and uncoiling in his stomach. He hoped it wouldn't reach his antennae—if he were to break down and psonk in front of Larhgan, it would be the final humiliation.
"Skkiru!" the girl exclaimed, rotating gently, for she, like her fiance—her erstwhile fiance, that was, for the new regime had caused all such ties to be severed—and every other literate person on the planet, had received her education at the local university. Although sound, the school was admittedly provincial in outlook and very poor in the emotional department. "One would almost think that the lots had some sort of divine intelligence behind them, because you certainly are behaving in a beggarly manner!"
"And I have already explained to you, Skkiru," Bbulas said, with a patience much more infuriating than the girl's anger, "that I had no idea of who was to become my high priestess. The lots chose Larhgan. It is, as the Earthmen say, kismet."
He adjusted the fall of his glittering robe before the great polished four-dimensional reflector that formed one wall of the chamber.
Kismet, Skkiru muttered to himself, and a little sleight of hand. But he didn't dare offer this conclusion aloud; the libel laws of Snaddra were very severe. So he had to fall back on a weak, "And I suppose it is kismet that makes us all have to go live out on the ground during the day, like—like savages."
"It is necessary," Bbulas replied without turning.
"Pooh," Skkiru said. "Pooh, pooh, POOH!"
Larhgan's dainty earflaps closed. "Skkiru! Such language!"
"As you said," Bbulas murmured, contemptuously coiling one antenna at Skkiru, "the lots chose well and if you touch me, Skkiru, we shall have another drawing for beggar and you will be made a metal-worker."
"But I can't work metal!"
"Then that will make it much worse for you than for the other outcasts," Bbulas said smugly, "because you will be a pariah without a trade."
"Speaking of pariahs, that reminds me, Skkiru, before I forget, I'd better give you back your grimpatch—" Larhgan handed the glittering bauble to him—"and you give me mine. Since we can't be betrothed any longer, you might want to give yours to some nice beggar girl."
"I don't want to give my grimpatch to some nice beggar girl!" Skkiru yelled, twirling madly in the air.
"As for me," she sighed, standing soulfully on her head, "I do not think I shall ever marry. I shall make the religious life my career. Are there going to be any saints in your mythos, Bbulas?"
"Even if there will be," Bbulas said, "you certainly won't qualify if you keep putting yourself into a position which not only represents a trait wholly out of keeping with the new culture, but is most unseemly with the high priestess's robes."
Larhgan ignored his unfeeling observations. "I shall set myself apart from mundane affairs," she vowed, "and I shall pretend to be happy, even though my heart will be breaking."
It was only at that moment that Skkiru realized just how outrageous the whole thing really was. There must be another solution to the planet's problem. "Listen—" he began, but just then excited noises filtered down from overhead. It was too late.
"Earth ship in view!" a squeaky voice called through the intercom. "Everybody topside and don't forget your shoes."
Except the beggar. Beggars went barefoot. Beggars suffered. Bbulas had made him beggar purposely, and the lots were a lot of slibwash.
"Hurry up, Skkiru."
Bbulas slid the ornate headdress over his antennae, which, already gilded and jeweled, at once seemed to become a part of it. He looked pretty damn silly, Skkiru thought, at the same time conscious of his own appearance—which was, although picturesque enough to delight romantic Terrestrial hearts, sufficiently wretched to charm the most hardened sadist.
"Hurry up, Skkiru," Bbulas said. "They mustn't suspect the existence of the city underground or we're finished before we've started."
"For my part, I wish we'd never started," Skkiru grumbled. "What was wrong with our old culture, anyway?"
That was intended as a rhetorical question, but Bbulas answered it anyway. He always answered questions; it had never seemed to penetrate his mind that school-days were long since over.
"I've told you a thousand times that our old culture was too much like the Terrans' own to be of interest to them," he said, with affected weariness. "After all, most civilized societies are basically similar; it is only primitive societies that differ sharply, one from the other—and we have to be different to attract Earthmen. They're pretty choosy. You've got to give them what they want, and that's what they want. Now take up your post on the edge of the field, try to look hungry, and remember this isn't for you or for me, but for Snaddra."
"For Snaddra," Larhgan said, placing her hand over her anterior heart in a gesture which, though devout on Earth—or so the fictapes seemed to indicate—was obscene on Snaddra, owing to the fact that certain essential organs were located in different areas in the Snaddrath than in the corresponding Terrestrial life-form. Already the Terrestrial influence was corrupting her, Skkiru thought mournfully. She had been such a nice girl, too.
"We may never meet on equal terms again, Skkiru," she told him, with a long, soulful glance that made his hearts sink down to his quivering toes, "but I promise you there will never be anyone else for me—and I hope that knowledge will inspire you to complete cooperation with Bbulas."
"If that doesn't," Bbulas said, "I have other methods of inspiration."
"All right," Skkiru answered sulkily. "I'll go to the edge of the field, and I'll speak broken Inter-galactic, and I'll forsake my normal habits and customs, and I'll even beg. But I don't have to like doing it, and I don't intend to like doing it."
All three of Larhgan's eyes fuzzed with emotion. "I'm proud of you, Skkiru," she said brokenly.
Bbulas sniffed. The three of them floated up to ground level in a triple silence.
"Alms, for the love of Ipsnadd," Skkiru chanted, as the two Terrans descended from the ship and plowed their way through the mud to meet a procession of young Snaddrath dressed in elaborate ceremonial costumes, and singing a popular ballad—to which less ribald, as well as less inspiring, words than the originals had been fitted by Bbulas, just in case, by some extremely remote chance, the Terrans had acquired a smattering of Snadd somewhere. Since neither party was accustomed to navigating mud, their progress was almost imperceptible.
"Alms, for the love of Ipsnadd," chanted Skkiru the beggar. His teeth chattered as he spoke, for the rags he wore had been custom-weatherbeaten for him by the planet's best tailor—now a pariah, of course, because Snadd tailors were, naturally, metal-workers—and the wind and the rain were joyously making their way through the demolished wires. Never before had Skkiru been on the surface of the planet, except to pass over, and he had actually touched it only when taking off and landing. The Snaddrath had no means of land transport, having previously found it unnecessary—but now both air-cars and self-levitation were on the prohibited list as being insufficiently primitive.
The outside was no place for a civilized human being, particularly in the wet season or—more properly speaking on Snaddra—the wetter season. Skkiru's feet were soaked with mud; not that the light sandals worn by the members of the procession appeared to be doing them much good, either. It gave him a kind of melancholy pleasure to see that the privileged ones were likewise trying to repress shivers. Though their costumes were rich, they were also scanty, particularly in the case of the females, for Earthmen had been reported by tape and tale to be humanoid.
As the mud clutched his toes, Skkiru remembered an idea he had once gotten from an old sporting fictape of Terrestrial origin and had always planned to experiment with, but had never gotten around to—the weather had always been so weathery, there were so many other more comfortable sports, Larhgan had wanted him to spend more of his leisure hours with her, and so on. However, he still had the equipment, which he'd salvaged from a wrecked air-car, in his apartment—and it was the matter of a moment to run down, while Bbulas was looking the other way, and get it.
Bbulas couldn't really object, Skkiru stilled the nagging