The OutposterGordon R. Dickson
Gordon R. Dickson
Copyright © 1972 by Gordon R. Dickson
A Baen Book
Cover art by Dean Morrissey
First Baen printing, October 1992
The line of those cast out of paradise was three miles long. It stretched along beside the tall wire fence in the drizzling rain, and the unit driver delivering the newly graduated out-poster to the transport ship had to check blowers and honk several times before the line would part enough opposite the final gate in the fence to let the unit through to the passenger side.
Once through both line and gate he turned and drove on the safe side of the fence up to the passenger boarding stairs. The line closed again where it had opened. The gate relocked itself. None of those who had moved bothered to look after the unit. There was a common numbness to them all. It was as if the dark autumn day under the cloud-thick skies had washed all the colour of life out of them, leaving them as drab and chill as itself.
There were now no tears to be seen among them. They moved like people too stupefied for weeping. Those who were going as partners, either because their numbers had been drawn together or because a wife or husband had volunteered to accompany a lotteried mate, held to each other's hands. But that was all.
There was almost no talking. Nearly everyone in the line, from the eighty-year-old lady with the twisted, arthritic fingers to the big young man in the red and gold half coat with the wide, fashionably padded shoulders, carried something—a small overnight case, a brown paper envelope, or a box gift wrapped with bright paper and coloured ribbon. The big young man in red and gold carried a bottle of sixty-three-year-old cognac, holding it in both hands before him as if he could not make up his mind whether to open it just then or not.
In fact, he could not make up his mind—not so much because the decision was a large one, but because two things were at war with him at once, beneath the dispirited indifference that affected them all. He had refused all drugs, but he had let himself drink heavily the night before, which had been as large an evening as he could make it, seeing it was his last on Earth. Therefore, he was sick and vise-headed with the pain of a hangover, and one part of him wanted to open the bottle of cognac to get at the liquor that would help him feel better.
The other part of him that was in conflict with this, however, had something to do with his name, which was Jarl Rakkal. It was a very well-known name, and during the previous three days of indoctrination some of the other drafted colonists had even come up to him for autographs. They had stopped coming when they began to see that he got no better treatment than themselves. The Rakkals were well known in banking circles on Earth, and he had won his own recognition apart from that as publisher of the most successful parti-fax mag to emerge in ten years. He still did not know how his political connections had failed to keep his number out of the lottery. By name and position he should have been doubly secure. Of course, it could have been the doing of his relatives, who had disliked and been ashamed of him. But that no longer mattered. What did matter, now that it was too late, was that being who he was he should be above needing any kind of artificial solace or anesthesia—even to help a hangover as bad as this one—on this boarding day. He was a winner and should not need comforting, even self-administered comforting.
So, he moved along in the slow line, at moments remembering his hangover and instinctively starting to unscrew the top of the bottle, then remembering who he was and checking the twisting fingers.
Ahead of Jarl Rakkal, some eight people ahead in the line, was what seemed to be a child, a young girl of perhaps eight. But there were no children among the lotteried. Actually, what appeared a small girl was a midget, and unlike Jarl she was not at all wondering how she had ended up in the line. Her wonder was that she had not landed in such a line many years before, since variations from the physical norm were caught in the lottery more often than average people. Her name was Lily Betaugh, and she had set out to be a university teacher of philosophy of such stature that she would be voted exemption from the lottery.
She had in fact become a full professor of philosophy, at the University of Belgrade, but she had never become either popular or famous enough to be voted exemption. Sometime during the last few years she had realized that she never would. She was brilliant— very, very brilliant. But she wasn't the best, and only the best got exemptions.
Some thirty yards farther up the line of drafted colonists—almost level with the unit from which newly graduated Outposter Mark Ten Roos was now alighting, on the far side of the fence—was Age Hammerschold. He was a master cabinetmaker, overage for union protection but by a year and a half still young enough for the lottery, and now his chief mental activity was to congratulate himself continually that his wife had died three years before. The thought filled him with something like glee—it was as if he, personally, had successfully cheated the authorities out of one body and one soul by having had a wife who died before he himself could be drafted. He waited his turn on the boarding ladder leading to the colonists' ship entrance almost with indifference. He was close enough to hear what they were saying on the other side of the high fence with the barbed wire top, but he paid no attention. As far as he was concerned, the regular passengers were like so many exotic animals with which he had nothing in common.
"Miss," the shorter of the ship's guards on the far side of the fence was saying, "you don't understand."
"Oh, I understand," answered the girl passenger he was talking to. She extended a slim right arm and pulled back the cuff on its semi-transparent black sleeve. Strapped to her wrist was the small matchbox shape of a wrist gun. "But I've got a weapon."
For the first time, Mark Ten Roos, the young outposter who had just arrived, took a close look at her. She was no older than Mark, tall and slimly athletic, with a shoulder-length mane of black hair bound with a silver band that held it back from the delicate oval of her face. Her eyes sparkled now, just on the edge of an explosion of anger, and the little wrist gun had a pattern of red and green jewels set in its case.
"Yes, miss," said one of the two guards, "I know. But that's not the point. Ship's regulation is for all passengers to wear side arms"— he held up the ship-issued belt and weapon he had been offering her, as if she were a judge before whom he was presenting evidence. "It's captain's regulations, miss."
It was curious, Mark thought, that the guards were being so unusually patient with the girl. He wondered who she was. No salesman's wife would have received such kid-glove treatment, and in any case she looked too young to be one of the embarking wives. But even a member of the staff of an admiral-general, like the one named on the ship's transport schedule Mark had examined earlier, was hardly likely to rate such patient handling.
Clearly she could not be as mere a person as a salesman's wife or even a high-ranking staff member. She could only be, like the admiral-general himself, a member of the so-called Five Thousand—that rarefied social aristocracy of an overpopulated Earth, among whom unlimited wealth and unlimited power were taken for granted; that select community so isolated fro
m the rest of the people of the Earth-City and the Colonies that the aristocrats even effected a private slang of their own, with fashionable pet names for one another which changed with every season.
Mark stared at this girl now. In spite of himself, she attracted him, like some pure jewel in an ostentatious setting of great richness and craft. Everything about her was the symbol of all he had spent his knowledgeable years in detesting—but, she herself was beautiful. Beautiful and young, and so wrapped in luxury that she could not conceive of its lack. To her, a jaunt to the Colonies would be a play-trip, an adventure ...
He put her coldly from his mind and turned back to his examination of the colonists and the spaceship.
She was a one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-ton vessel, the Wombat, ready for takeoff to the Abruzzi Sector of colonized space—that sector protected by Outer Space Navy Base One, where nine-tenths of the colonized worlds were to be found, circling half a dozen closely related stars. Takeoff was scheduled for two hours from now. Right at the moment, the Wombat lay on her belly in her berth on Spaceport, South Pacific, a great floating pad of concrete five hundred miles due north from the Marquesas.
Her cargo, according to the transport schedule, was machine tools, instruments, weapons, and some twelve hundred colonists destined for assignment to colonies on the four colonized worlds under the sun of Garnera, a GO-type star with a family of eighteen planets. Her passengers included the admiral-general of Space Navy Force Blue One at the Outer Navy Base, with his personal party of six, and twenty-three manufacturers' representatives or salesmen, four with wives. Also, three outposters including Mark himself.
Mark caught sight of his reflection in the tall silver case of a plasma power generator awaiting loading. The figure that looked back at him was that of a tall, lean, rather long-faced youth, with dark and penetrating eyes, in the utilitarian boots, jump suit, and short jacket of an experienced outposter. A side arm rested openly in a topless grey holster fitted flat to the belt around his narrow waist and clamped to the grey cloth of the pants' leg over the outside of his right thigh. Clamped likewise around the grey-sleeved biceps of his left arm was the black metal band and seal that proclaimed his outposter rank. If it had not been for the youthfulness of his features, there would have been no reason for the slightly startled look on the face of the guard at the outer gate of the spaceport's closed field area, several minutes ago.
At the memory of that look, a cool breath of humour blew for a second across Mark's mind. It would not be a usual sight for the guard—the face of someone as young as Mark and wearing gun and grey, like a veteran of the Outpost Stations. Even newly graduated outposters like himself, Mark knew, were normally three to five years older than he was.
His attention was drawn back to the long line of figures some twenty yards away, beyond the wire fence, streaming slowly aboard the ship through a cargo hatch. Men and women alike, they moved without protest. But their faces were sombre, and not a few of them were pale with inner fear or a hangover. Only here and there was a zombie-like figure helped along by a friend or a wife, having been put under heavy tranquillization for his own emotional relief, or because he had caused trouble in the staging area.
At this moment they looked like an ordinary batch—a simple cross section of humanity from the Earth-City. But in their present stage of shock it was impossible to tell. Right now their minds were full only of the fact that they were being sent out. Later, when the shock wore off, it would be possible for the out-posters aboard to weigh and judge them, to read their characters and take advantage of being on shipboard with them to put in priority claims for the more likely ones.
Mark continued to watch them come, now, for his own reasons. Whether by accident or design, most of them had chosen to dress themselves in colours as sombre as their faces. Only far down the line approaching the ship was there one flash of brilliant colour— a big man dressed in a half-coat of scarlet and gold, with calf-high boots of dark blue and a golden cap.
The argument at the foot of the passenger stairs, just in front of him, drew Mark's attention once more from the colonists.
"I don't see why!" The girl was angry now. "My gun is just as lethal at short range as that."
"But part of the point is in showing the weapon, miss," said the guard she was facing. "It's part of the necessary early conditioning for the gar—the colonists."
"The what?" The girl stared at him.
The guard's face reddened. The word had almost slipped out, and any explanation now would simply make matters worse. Mark examined the guard With new interest to see how he would handle the situation.
"The—colonists, miss," he stammered. "You see—"
"But you started to call them 'garbage'!" exclaimed the girl, staring at him. "That's a terrible thing to say!"
"Well, it's not them, so much—" the guard was now sweating lightly. "We—they just call them that because the Earth-City's got to get rid of... well, what it doesn't want..."
The other guard, Mark noted, was prudently staying out of it. From social error his partner was now sinking into near treason, and this before someone who, by evidence of the unusual respect they had shown her, might well be closely related to someone in the Earth-City government. Mark felt a twinge of sympathy for the guard. Rescue should not be too difficult. What was needed was a diversion.
He glanced back at the approaching line of colonists. The big man in the scarlet and gold clothing was now almost opposite them. It was obvious that his wearing apparel, when seen up close, was every bit as expensive as that of the girl's, but wealth alone was not always enough to keep someone from being lotteried for the colonies. The colonist's heavy-boned, good-looking face had a wild, pale look, and there was the glint of sweat on his broad forehead. Mark guessed him to be suffering not only from being where he was but also from a drug or alcohol hangover. Mark stared at the man hard, and after a second, with the sensitivity of the watched, the big man looked around. Through the wire mesh of the ten-foot-high fence their eyes met.
Mark smiled at him, deliberately—with the mocking smile of someone on the right side of the barrier.
For a second Jarl Rakkal only stared back. Then his face spasmed into a white mask. And suddenly he was running toward the fence.
Shouts from the other colonists interrupted the girl and the now-babbling guard. Both guards swung about as the big man went up the far side of the fence like a cat, his hands clamping fiercely on the wire ends at the top and coming away bloody as he flipped his body over and down on the passenger side.
The guard who had not been in trouble had his gun half drawn. Mark reached over and knocked it back down into the holster.
"I'll handle it," Mark said.
He turned and took three steps to meet the charging colonist. Some six feet from him, the scarlet and gold figure suddenly bent double without breaking stride and launched itself like a missile—right arm stiffly outstretched, hand open, and fingers up, the butt of the palm leading at an almost impossible angle with the wrist.
It was a ki stroke, by one who was more than a casual amateur in that school of unarmed combat. The advantage of momentum and angle was all with the attacker, as the staring guards, if not the girl, knew. The counter was as simple as the ki stroke itself, but like the ki stroke, its success depended upon that sort of split-second timing acquired only by monotonous and countless hours of practice.
In the fraction of a second before the lethal palm-butt touched him, Mark fell stiffly off to his left side, catching himself on his outstretched left arm and levering his right leg up and out stiffly in a sideways kick. The rising bar of his leg slammed into the groin of his flying attacker and flipped the body in midair, landing it heavily on its back a few yards beyond. The big man, stunned, tried momentarily to rise, then fell back unconscious.
The guards were upon him immediately, pinning the unresisting arms and legs. One of them produced a hypo gun loaded with a tranquillizer; the other spoke
rapidly into the phone on his wrist and called for extra guards. Mark walked over to them as they finished their several tasks.
"What's his number?" Mark asked. "I may want him."
The guard who had just finished using his phone reached for the tag around the tanned throat of the unconscious colonist.
"Sixteen hundred and twenty-nine, of yesterday's date," the guard said.
"Thanks," said Mark.
"Not at all, sir." The guard who had answered was the one who had been talking himself into trouble with the girl. He looked at Mark now with gratitude mingled with a new respect that ignored Mark's youthfulness. "That was pretty, that counter."
"Thanks," said Mark. He turned and went back over to where the girl was standing, staring down at the fallen man. For a moment, seeing the look on her face, he felt something almost like a surge of sympathy for her.
"You see," he told her, "a pellet from a little wrist gun like yours won't stop a charge like that. But a heavy slug from a side arm will. It has more mass, and so more stopping power."
Her head came around slowly. She stared at him incredulously for a second. Then, instinctively, he took a step backward and the open edge of her hand lashed past his face.
"You—" she choked it off. "Did you have to hurt him like that? You—disposable!"
She turned and ran to kneel by the still-unconscious figure. Left standing, Mark smiled a little grimly. Her class instinct had not been slow in reasserting itself.
"Take him into my cabin!" she ordered the guards, busy on both sides of her.
"I'm sorry, miss—" began the guard who had argued with her about wearing the side arm.
"Did you hear me? I said take him into my cabin! Don't you know who he is? He's Jarl Rakkal!"
Official patience finally gave out.
"I wouldn't care if he was your father himself!" snapped the guard. "Who he is doesn't mean anything here. I know what he is, and that's a colonist. He goes back on the other side of the fence and lucky that's all that'll happen to him. Now, get out of our way. And put that side arm on before you try to enter the ship!"