hang on every word of
his soft-spoken voice.
The sand-rover crept through the night, Atalanta studying the terrain. Everyone was awake and riding in the forward cab, dark but for the pale blue glow of the instruments.
"There is a great deal of activity on the road ahead," Atty said. "People moving about, machinery in operation. They won't be able to detect us yet, but it might be prudent..."
A shaft of light poured down from heaven and lit up the desert as if it were broad daylight. The transport truck lay on its side in the ruins of the collapsed bridge, sacks of grain scattered across the dry riverbed. Dozens of leather-clad figures were scrambling over the wreck like ants, piling sacks onto motorcycles and dune-buggies and lashing them in place. A few glanced up at the rover but did not pay the intruders further attention.
"The Quasi will be here soon," said Progeny. "They won't be able to get away with much of this stuff."
"Weakening that bridge was a lot of trouble for not much food," Karil added. He looked up into the blazing southern sky. He knew precisely what was happening: the instant the grain-carrier’s microwave connection was severed, someone like Karil had angled a mirror to reflect sunlight onto the very spot; all the vehicles and warm bodies were being photographed and catalogued, and gunships had already been dispatched from the nearest Quasi garrison.
Progeny touched a lever and the hatch opened before them; he dropped down onto the road and walked forward to the crest of the hill. The winds were beginning to pick up as the hot air rose under the SPOT-light, and the dust of the desert was swirling in little devils. Soon, there would be a full-fledged tornado born on this location. Progeny turned to the others.
"We can help them," he said. He had to shout over the rising moan of the wind.
"What if the Quasi find us here?" Shagrug shouted back. "Besides, these people just tried to kill us."
"And we succeeded in killing some of them. Terry, Karil, get the horses out of the trailer." The youngsters scrambled back through the cars, took the horses' reins, and dropped the ramp to the ground. They struggled to drag the snorting creatures out into the howling wind.
"Here," said Shagrug. He swung down through the hatch and tossed a rifle to Progeny. "At least you can defend yourself if they don't take kindly to your offer."
"Shag!" Atalanta boomed into the storm. "Aircraft approaching from the southwest."
"The southwest? That's the wrong direction, and too soon." Shagrug turned and peered into the gale.
A black winged ship slowly appeared from the roiling dust-cloud that surrounded them. It drifted overhead and hovered above the wrecked transport and all the figures climbing over it. They began to shout and point at the ship and scatter in all directions, but they did not scatter far before it opened up and strafed the scene with laser-fire. The screams of those hit were drowned by the howl of the storm.
"Hey, Atty, your boyfriend's back." Shagrug scrambled up into the cab, slid into place behind the forward gun, and swivelled it up into position. "Why am I doing this?" he asked. With a storm-muffled clatter, he put a line of holes across the ship's flank, but they hardly seemed to have any effect. "Atty, if you can communicate with this thing, now's the time to do it. Order it to retreat."
"I'm trying, Shag. It's been jury-rigging repairs on itself for decades. The comm-system is a dog's breakfast."
The ship turned slowly, hovering on fans so powerful that it managed to maintain its position in a gale that was making the rover itself rock back and forth. Karil and Terry struggled to control the storm-crazed horses, as Progeny climbed up onto the roof of the sand-rover. The ship turned toward them, the skeletal face of its long-dead pilot gazed unseeing into Progeny's eyes, and the bikers watched from the cover they had sought in the barrage.
Progeny stood on the roof, holding the rifle lightly in his hands. "Leave these people alone," he shouted in the teeth of the storm. "Stop harassing them. You're dead. They still live. They need to eat."
Atalanta's sensitive microphones took Progeny's words and broadcast them across the desert in a voice like thunder. Progeny's argument would mean nothing to the systems aboard the ship, but his words might cause some confusion and give Atty time to access its communications.
"Leave them alone." Progeny's voice shook the earth. "These people are civilians. Non-combatants. Cease firing. Call off the attack. Go back to Hell and leave them alone."
"That did it, Shag," Atty said quietly. "I managed to patch Progeny's order to call off the attack through its own comm receiver. It should assume the message came from Headquarters.”
"Maybe," Shagrug said, "but I suspect those High Company ships on the way might have had an effect too."
The ship banked slowly and turned away. It vanished into the clouds, and they heard its sonic boom as it streaked away across the desert. They were plunged into darkness as the pillar of light darted away in pursuit. In the distance, they saw the beam playing over the mountain slopes. As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, Progeny dropped his rifle, swung down into the midst of the astonished onlookers, and flung a sack of grain over his shoulder. "Hurry," he said. "My vehicle can carry more than yours. The Quasi-Police will be here any minute now. And they’re very much alive."
Too stunned and intimidated to refuse, the raiders gathered up the sacks strewn across the riverbed, and in a moment, there was a line tossing them into the empty horse-trailer. The tattooed girl flung the heavy sacks as easily as the biggest man among them, laughing the whole time. In a few moments more, there was a convoy of motorcycles and dune-buggies snaking across the desert, followed by the rover, Karil and Terry trotting beside it on their horses. In the distance behind them, they could hear the thunder of passing Quasi ships.
The tribe's compound was half buried in a hillside, beside a dry riverbed several kilometres away. The entrance was well hidden behind a pile of rock and dead tree-branches--and equally hard to spot from orbit. The outer wall was made of sheet metal, logs, rusted steel beams--in short, anything the builders could get their hands on--and it was topped with barbed wire. Armed guards patrolled above, and Karil and Terry looked at each other nervously as the gate opened for their motorcycle escort. The rover pulled inside in a cloud of dust and the tailgate slammed down. Armed guards supervised the removal of the grain and its storage in what was really the only sturdy building in the compound. A crowd of people gathered to stare at the strange visitors and the amazing quantity of grain.
At one point, a bag split open and dumped its contents on the ground; people in the crowd dove to gather it up in their hands and were kicked aside by the guards. There was obviously little to eat in the village; a few scrawny farm-animals cowered in a corral, and there seemed to have been a half-hearted attempt to grow vegetables in the parched soil, but Karil could see that the stolen grain was a great prize. The enormous still bubbling in the centre of the compound revealed that the grain would not only be used for food, but to create alcohol to fuel the tribe's vehicles.
A powerful tattooed and bearded figure strode toward them and held out his hand, oblivious to the struggle going on about him. "I'm Torque, the chief here. My men told me what you did for us. Welcome."
Progeny shook his hand. "The Quasi are my enemy too. I'm happy to help feed your tribe with their grain. My name is Proj. This is my wife Terry, and my best fighting men, Shag and Karil. This is Atalanta."
Atty lowered her forward cab in a dignified bow. The chief was most impressed, and he invited them all for dinner. Inside his hut, adjacent to the grain stores and ill-lit with smelly torches, a feast was set out on a long trestle table. Outside, the tribe was still fighting over spilled grain, but the chief had meat and eggs. The food was served by two half-naked children wearing iron collars--a girl of fourteen or so and a boy of perhaps twelve. Afterwards, they sprawled on the floor on either side of the chief's chair. Several times during dinner, he tossed some meat under the table, and they scrambled for it. Women--apparently the chief's harem--occasionally peered at them through curtains. Judging by the clanking sound, they were shackled as well.
Karil was none too happy about any of this, including the food, but the others ate with apparent pleasure, and so he did his best to chew the stuff--much less appetizing than either the food available in LaGrange or the home cooking of New Tharsis. Shag seemed happy to eat anything that wasn’t ship's rations, and Karil guessed that hunted exiles like Proj and Terry could not afford to pass up any meal.
"How did you manage to drive off the Demon of the Desert?" Torque asked. "We know the pilot of the ship is dead. He appears without warning sometimes and attacks our vehicles on the road, when we get too close to the mountains. We are powerless against that kind of magic."
"My vehicle opened a communications channel to him. I told him to leave, and he did." Progeny shrugged. That was true enough, Karil thought, but the story impressed the chief while telling him nothing.
"Your vehicle," the chief said, "is Martian. I have seen pictures." His eyes lit up. "And you are from Mars, too. You are the man called Progeny. I have heard of you. By now, everyone in the village will know the story of the attack, and the people will be convinced you have great powers. Perhaps you would speak to them tonight, at the celebration." Outside, drums were already beginning to sound, and a great bonfire was blazing in the centre of the compound, casting shadows on the wall of the chief's hut.
"If you could say a few words on my behalf, it would go well. My people love me very much, of course, but this is a hard place to live and there is always grumbling. Perhaps I could offer you supplies for your long journey and safe passage through the desert." The chief tore off a mouthful of chicken. "Something about the benefits of good government and respect for leadership, perhaps. As a leader yourself..." Torque spread his hands.
"Of course," Progeny said, nodding gravely. "I'd be happy to."
After dinner, they went out into the compound. Cavorting figures cast great shadows on the compound walls in the flickering firelight, and the drums and screams were deafening. The chief nodded to the guards on the walls above and they fired their guns into the air in a volley. The crowd grew silent as the chief stepped out onto the high porch of his hut.
"My people,” he said, “listen to me. I am proud of your work today. No other tribe in the desert could have brought a great High Company transport to earth, like you did, and made off with its cargo."
They applauded themselves with whoops and shouts.
"Satan himself sent his warrior against us, and still we prevailed, for we had a champion to defeat him. This man from another world stood face to face with the Demon and it retired in confusion. The one called Progeny is already familiar to some of you. He will be celebrated in song for generations to come. He would speak to you now."
There was a deafening roar and a beating of drums as Progeny stepped forward. Instead of standing beside the chief, he walked down the stairs and sat on the bottom step. The people in the compound, unused to being higher than their leaders, promptly sat down in the dust at his feet. His role was instantly changed from orator to teacher, and when he spoke, his voice was quiet. His listeners strained to hear him and fell into a silence broken only by the crackling of the fire. Several children, responding to his gentle voice and warm smile, came forward and sat beside him on the step. In a few simple movements, the gathering had been changed from a leadership rally to a fireside conversation, and the chief had been rendered irrelevant. Karil shook his head in awe.
"Your chief was right to praise you," Progeny said, quietly. "It took great courage to attack that transport, knowing that this would call down the power of the Quasi-Police and the High Companies on your heads. It must seem to you that the ability to turn night into day and create storms at will is superhuman. But it's not. It's only men and women like you with a superior technology.
"Their tribe was young and hardy like yours once, and determined to put its technological creativity to work, but now it is old and corrupt, and cares only for wealth and power. You see the desolation around you; this place was once green and fertile. Once it fed the whole Earth and now it can't even feed your small tribe. The world I come from is a desert even more forbidding than this, and our mining communities are isolated and vulnerable; our lives are filled with hard work and danger, and the High Companies wield even greater power over us.
"For a long time, each of our warrens struggled alone, in competition with all the others, and sometimes this rivalry became violent. Many of us wanted to put an end to this situation, to create unity of purpose among all the warrens and yet allow each one to live in freedom. We wanted to make sure that every Martian would be fed and sheltered equally, and that no-one would be able to seize control of the necessities of life to enrich himself and his friends or deny them to his enemies. And we knew that any sort of government we devised would not only be extremely difficult to maintain but would tempt the High Companies to interfere and manipulate and eventually corrupt it to their own benefit. We realized that government itself could be as dangerous to us as the sandstorms or the High Companies' troops."
The Chief was still beaming with pleasure, but Shagrug frowned and glanced at the guards atop the walls. His eyes met those of Karil beside him and darted up to the guards again. Karil nodded almost imperceptibly. Shagrug peered into Atty's cockpit, and the tiny light over the driver's seat blinked three times.
"The more we talked of this," Progeny went on, "the more we got down to the basics. Why, we wondered, should we allow someone else to tell us what to do? What gives anyone the right--as opposed to the power--to command others? In the end, we found only three good reasons. First, to protect you from the enemy outside your gates. Military discipline requires one individual to give orders and others to obey. But when your leader comes to confiscate your cow to pay for an army to protect you from cattle-rustlers, then puts you in irons when you complain about it, you might begin to wonder if you weren't better off with the raiders outside the gate than your own protectors within; at least the raiders went away after they took your cow and didn't expect you to feed it afterwards."
There was a ripple of bawdy laughter in the crowd. The chief was beginning to look uncomfortable.
"Second, to discourage the thief inside your gates. A police-force is like any sharpened tool: useful with the proper safeguards, and when used for the purpose for which it was designed. Usually, however, the police are paid, not to protect and defend the people, but to protect and defend the leaders. Too often, the police and those who pay them steal more than the thief in the night." The guards standing before the chief's door looked at each other and grumbled.
"And third, to keep the gates themselves in good repair. Your barricades require constant work, as do your vehicles, your weapons, your storage bins, your still, and your well. Even your graveyard. Keeping these things in good repair is a duty as complex and necessary as any military or police action. As time goes on, and your society grows, you will require your leadership to do more and more in the common good, for the systems will become more and more complex, and your government will become more and more powerful. You must see that it remains in your service, not the other way around."
The chief glanced up at the wall and nodded. One of the guards raised his rifle. There was the crack of a shot and he tumbled off the wall. The other guards reached for their weapons, but Karil and Shagrug raised theirs and took aim. Atalanta lifted her head with a whir and a click; the guns along her flank swung out and flipped up into position. They moved slowly, covering the walls all around, and the guards froze in position. Shagrug put his hand out, palm down, and gestured downwards. The guards placed their weapons at their feet.
The crowd parted and a small and wiry figure appeared, holding a smoking rifle in her hands. She bounded up onto the platform and held the trembling chief at gunpoint. The serpents tattooed on her body seemed to writhe in the flickering firelight. "You all know me," she shouted. "I'm Baby Snakes. The stranger is as wise as he is brave. We should listen to what he says."
"Thank you," said Progeny. He set down the child in his lap and stood up before the assembly, his hand still resting on the child's shoulder. But his voice had changed and there was fire in his eyes. "This man who calls himself Chief, who dined on meat while you scrambled in the dirt for a portion of the grain you had taken at great risk, how did he become chief here? Did you choose him, or did he seize power? Is he the wisest man among you or only the strongest?" He turned and looked at him. "I think he's the strongest. Well, his sons will be better fed than yours, and stronger still, and they will be chief in their turn. Since they will know perfectly well that their authority is illegitimate, they will gather their friends and relatives together at their side, to maintain their power. How many of these guards are related to the chief by blood?"
There was grumbling and nodding in the crowd.
"Make them understand that it is you, the people of this village, who put food on the table, not some man who calls himself Chief. Make sure that he knows he is working for you, not you for him. Let him live in the biggest hut, if you will, but make sure the widow and the orphan can live there with him, not as his slaves, but as his children. Pick your leader wisely, and let him be your father, not your master."
He pointed to the chief's hut. "You could begin by freeing the women and children in there and feeding them." He pointed to the walls above. "Make those men swear loyalty to the tribe, not to its leader, and make sure their guns are always aimed outwards." He pointed to the chief, sweating profusely now under Baby Snakes' baleful glare. "Spare this man and treat him with respect; he has experience; you are few and you need all the expertise you have. But I suggest you appoint someone like this girl to keep an eye on him."
There was a chorus of shouts. "Ba-by Snakes! Ba-by Snakes!"
"That was good shooting," Progeny told her. "And even better timing."
"Thank you," said Baby Snakes, with a grin. "A lot of us have wanted a change for a long time, and you gave us a chance we couldn’t pass up. But you'd better leave soon. This party could get rough." She smiled at Karil. "You wouldn't like to stay behind, would you?"
"I don't think he would," Terry said, before he had a chance to reply.
The girl's bawdy laugh echoed in the camp; she grabbed Karil and planted a great kiss on his mouth, then turned away toward her people. Crowds were already surging toward the chief's house and in a few moments his slaves were freed. Wide-eyed with fear, the chief found himself under the guard of his own soldiers, watching as the grain-stores were opened and the grain distributed. Fights began to break out, and Baby Snakes was obliged to bang a few heads together to restore order, along with a handful of others who had gathered around her. But she waved at the visitors as they piled aboard the rover and drove off into the night. Kilometres down the road, they could hear the sounds of the celebration drifting toward them over the desert, and the chant: "Ba-by Snakes. Ba-by Snakes."
Toward the morning, they saw dust-clouds drifting in the moonlight behind them, and more of the same before them; the desert seemed to be filled with vehicles. It was their escort, they believed, sent by Snakes to make sure they crossed the desert safely.
Karil and Shagrug sat in the cab, watching the distant dust-clouds. "The man is goddamn crazy," Shagrug said, "but he's fucking brilliant. He sat down like a teacher reading a story to a kindergarten class and when he stood up, he’d overthrown a barbarian chieftain."
Terry appeared behind them. "This is how I remember him from my childhood," she said. "He was wandering in the desert in a rover like this one, asking for shelter in one colony after another, with the Quasi hot on his trail. All the warrens were organized and disorganized in different ways, most of them seething with resentment toward the High Companies, and some of them pretty near as barbaric as that village back there. He was welcome everywhere because Triple-M had put a huge price on his head and welcoming him was a simple way to show contempt for them. All he did was sit and talk, and by the time he'd been re-captured, all of Mars was living by his principles. If not for him, there would have been one violent uprising after another, giving Triple-M an excuse to crack down even harder. A lot of us would have been dead and the Company would have been in total control by now."
Shagrug snorted. "No wonder the High Companies are after his ass. The funny thing is: a violent uprising would have cost them a fortune and maintaining control afterwards would have cost even more. The High Companies could stop ripping off Martian water right now, buy it from the Belters and the Galilean instead, and still make a profit out of the money that Progeny saved them."
"Maybe," Terry said. "But it’s not profit they’re thinking of now. It’s the power that's slipping from their grasp."
The towers of the Citadel thrust skyward from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, five kilometres from the tip of flooded Manhattan Island. Once the financial and trade centre of the world, it was now Quasi Headquarters for North America. The waves washed through the once busy streets, but the ancient business towers were linked by bridges and tower-gates into one huge castle of High Company authority.
The ship dropped out of the sky, approached swiftly over the Atlantic waves, and landed on the roof of one of the towers. Commander Solla stepped out of the lander, returned the salutes of the waiting officers, and descended in the elevator. The lieutenant showing him around was being so careful not to refer in any way to Solla's previous rank and position that he hesitated before every sentence, and the new Commander was becoming irritated. From Chief of Security for an entire planet to commander of one outpost was a precipitous drop in prestige, and Solla blamed Progeny for it.
"Excuse me. Commander?" said an ensign at a computer screen as Solla passed. He saluted sharply and the Commander responded.
"You were on Mars, weren't you, Sir?"
The lieutenant rolled his eyes skyward.
"Yes, Ensign. I served there five years. Why do you ask?"
"Isn't that a Martian sand-rover, Sir?"
He pointed to the flickering screen before him and Solla peered at the image, taken from orbit and greatly enlarged. "Yes, it is. What is this incident?"
"One of our grain transports ran this thing off the road in the desert. Shortly afterwards, the transport's transmissions ceased. We found it overturned under a sabotaged bridge and missing about a ton and a half of Canadian grain. No sign of this vehicle anywhere. But it looked Martian to me, Sir, and I wondered what the hell it was doing there."
"Good work, Ensign. Make a copy of this for me. If you run across anything that looks Martian again, or any reference to Mars in any transmission anywhere, I want you to send it up to me immediately. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Sir," the Ensign grinned from ear to ear.
Solla went on with his tour, but he seemed decidedly distracted after that.