Business for the Lawyers

by Ralph Robin

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Bump-Arch had to complete his experiment or spend five more years as an apprentice Scientist--and if successful, his feat would provide plenty of BUSINESS for the LAWYERS.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“Time,” said the Grandmaster of the Guild.

It was the formal word, and the scientists were silent; except Proudwalk, a biologist, who laughed at something whispered in her ear by a physicist named Snubnose, her brother.

“Time,” the Grandmaster repeated, and in a moment even Proudwalk was quiet, and Snubnose folded his arms.

“I do not need to tell you that today is the Day of the Candidate,” said the Grandmaster, supporting himself with an air of great age on his ceremonial staff of polished copper.

“But he will tell us--in many words,” Snubnose whispered now. “Next winter solstice I am going to propose we double the offering.”

Proudwalk sniggered.

It was the practice in the Guild of Scientists that a grandmaster, once elected, served for life or until he voluntarily retired. Every year the body formally offered its grandmaster a lump sum to retire. Popular incumbents were offered one tilsin, an obsolete unit worth less than the smallest real coin. Others were sometimes offered large amounts.

This system did not encourage elderly grandmasters to be laconic.

Unnecessarily consulting his notes, the Grandmaster declaimed, “On this Day of the Candidate, the 155th day of the year 1712, Dynastic Reckoning Corrected--”

Snubnose muttered, “Anybody else would say DRC.”

Proudwalk patted his lips. “Hush,” she said.

“--we are initiating the consideration of the candidature of Bump-arch apprentice physicist in the service of Crookback, a master physicist beloved and esteemed by us all. The candidature of Bump-arch will be governed by the Principles, by the Laws of the Guild, and by Acknowledged Custom. The procedure--”

While the Grandmaster talked, Snubnose pondered the familiar procedure--and some implications the venerable bore didn’t concern himself with.

To become a journeyman scientist, an apprentice had to do two things. He had to complete his term of service. And he had to perform on a Day of the Candidate a successful demonstration in his own branch of the scientific art.

The demonstration always took place on the Field of Proof before the whole body. It could be either an original experiment or a “restored experiment”--one reconstructed from fragments of ancient texts. Standards were low and almost anything was accepted, so long as the candidate accomplished what he said he would. If a conceited or, as occasionally happened, a gifted young man attempted a very complicated demonstration, and it didn’t come off--well, it was just too bad.

The unfortunate candidate could either serve another five years of apprenticeship and try again, or give up all connection with the Guild. If he left the Guild of Scientists, he couldn’t be admitted in any other Guild.

Which was no laughing matter.

Only journeymen and masters and kingsmen--in the general sense, both men and women--had full rights of citizens, including the right to marry by Public Law. Others might get married by Private Law, but that was a rather uncomfortable method.

Under Private Law, a man and a woman would sign a contract to marry, and if they succeeded in living together--”dwelling under the same roof as husband and wife”--for five years without being discovered by the Public Law police, they could then live together openly. They would then be as legally married as the most respectable members of the Guild of Merchants. But if the Public Law police caught them before the “years of cover” were completed, they were separated and sold as slaves.

Permission of all the parents was required for marriage by Public Law, whatever the age of the lovers. Consequently, even high-ranking guildfolk sometimes took their chances with Private Law, although most who tried it ended their lives threshing rye for the Lords of the West.

For example, Singwell and Gray-eyes...

Snubnose found such thoughts painful. He glanced at his sister and wondered how she could go on looking so cheerful. “But I suppose I look cheerful, myself,” he thought. Indeed, he had the kind of face that couldn’t look otherwise.

Snubnose followed his sister’s eyes to the Candidate’s stool; where Bump-arch, Proudwalk’s lover and his friend, sat indolently, with his long legs twisted under him.

He wondered what Proudwalk and Bump-arch were going to do.

Certainly they weren’t going to get married by Public Law. He winced as he remembered the furious screams of his mother every time Proudwalk brought up the question. Snubnose took his sister’s side, but it seemed hopeless to win their mother over. And even if they succeeded, it wouldn’t do any good. Bump-arch wasn’t going to qualify for journeyman’s rank, because he had stubbornly insisted on a demonstration that was sure to fail.

It was a crazy situation, Snubnose thought. Here he himself was a full-fledged journeyman, and here was his sister a full-fledged journeywoman, while a talented fellow like Bump-arch would remain an apprentice or become a guildless outcast. For that difficulty he had nobody to blame but himself, Snubnose reflected, in the virtuous way we meditate upon the mistakes of our friends.

Now the Grandmaster was introducing Crookback, Bump-arch’s master, and as late as the previous Day of the Candidate, Snubnose’s master as well. Snubnose looked at the old man more affectionately than he had while in his service. But he blamed Crookback for permitting Bump-arch to go ahead with his impossible demonstration. He was puzzled, as usual, by the motives of the old master physicist, born with a bent body and a clever, enigmatic mind.

A few formal words, a brief joke, and a couple of compliments--and Crookback presented the Candidate.

Bump-arch unwound his legs and stood before them. “Elder ones,” he began traditionally, and Snubnose thought he caught a quick, impudent look. Bump-arch was young--the three of them were young together in their city and their time--but he was two years older than Snubnose and a year older than Proudwalk. He had started his apprenticeship a little later than was usual.

“I will say the thing. I will attempt the thing. Yours, elder ones, to judge whether the thing is done, whether I am worthy to sit among you.” These too were traditional phrases.

“I will construct a chamber,” he said casually, “in which I will go irreversibly from today, 155th-1712 DRC, to a day in the future, 155th-1717 DRC. I would be proud to claim this demonstration as my own discovery, but it is not; it is a restored experiment. I follow the directions I copied, while still a boy, from an ancient inscription in a vault outside the walls. The vault was afterward buried by the earthquake.”

“And very conveniently too,” Snubnose added to himself. Bump-arch had not admitted it, even to him, but Snubnose was convinced that the chamber was his friend’s own invention.

“Reverence, elder ones,” Bump-arch said and walked to the arched door of the meeting room.

“Time,” said the Grandmaster.

Snubnose, rising, heard a conversation behind him, as two master chemists shuffled to their feet.

“Do you think the youngster will do it?” one asked.

“Well, there’s a tradition about it,” the other said.

“Yes, and there’s a tradition about the elixir of life and a hundred texts as well, and you remember what happened to the young fellow who tried to make it.”

There was a chuckle. “I remember, and he’s not so young any more, and he’s the best apprentice I have for washing glassware. Most experience.”

Proudwalk had heard the conversation also, and her face turned red. She raised her delicate nose--quite unlike her brother’s snub--and sniffed loudly.

“I think I smell hydrogen sulfide,” she said.


Carrying his copper staff the Grandmaster paced to the arched doorway, followed by Crookback. Bump-arch bowed as they preceded him through the door; and he had to bend his head again to pass through, for Bump-arch was partly of Bowman stock and tall for a man of the City.

The masters and mistresses of the Guild, the journeymen and journeywomen, filed out behind the Candidate in the order of their seniority. When Proudwalk and her brother reached the Street of the Scientists, already the kingsman and the godsman had taken their places to the right and the left of the Grandmaster in the foremost rank of the procession.

The kingsman wore his second gaudiest uniform--the most splendid was reserved for coronations--and carried his silver mace of authority. The godsman was naked, as above display and free of the temptations of sex. He carried nothing, for his nakedness was his badge of office. It was death for anyone except a godsman or a godswoman to be found in a public place unclothed.

There came next the Candidate and his master, and after them by two’s the whole body of scientists. Proudwalk and Snubnose walked together, the last pair.

Early in the morning Snubnose had determined to cheer up his sister as much as he could on this unhappy day. Now she walked along so lightly and smiled so much and so gaily, that it was obvious that she needed no cheering. Snubnose was irritated.

“I don’t see why you didn’t talk him out of it,” he said. “He might have listened to you where he wouldn’t listen to me. He has the odd delusion that you’re smarter than I.”

“I am,” said Proudwalk.

Snubnose growled.

He said, “You must not care about him as much as you let on, for all your mooning around the gardens. Well, it doesn’t surprise me much. You women are all obsessed with family pride, no matter how liberal you pretend to be. Of course you can’t marry Bump-arch, whose mother’s father was a Bowman. Our--two to the tenth power--one thousand and twenty-four ancestors, all pure City, all guildfolk from the very best guilds, would disturb every palace in Spiritland with their wailing. So now Bump-arch won’t qualify, and it will be an easy out for you.”

“Snubnose, you know that’s not true. But I’ll tell you something.” She lowered her voice. “I told Bump-arch not to listen to you and to go ahead with his demonstration.”

“But why? Even if you are only a biologist, you ought to know from your basic studies that all the best thinkers in physics for five hundred years have regarded time travel as a physical impossibility and all old traditions of time travel as myths.”

“Oh little gods. Whatever we can’t do any more is impossible and a myth. We just won’t admit we are not as good scientists as our remote ancestors. But some of us are as good, or even better.”

“By all the gods, big and little, you really do love the poor fellow. He’s good, but not that good. What will you do now? Wait till he finishes another apprenticeship and hope mother changes her mind meanwhile? And then he would probably come up with another impossible demonstration. Listen,” he said, whispering in her ear, “if you two are thinking of something crazy like Private Law at least let me know so I can help you. I wish father were alive,” he added helplessly.

“So do I. He was the only one in our family with any sense. Thanks just the same, Snubnose,” she said, and she pressed his hand.

For a little while he solemnly held her hand, then suddenly dropped it.

“I didn’t think,” he said. “This is worse than ever. If you really believe that Bump-arch’s demonstration is going to work, you don’t seem a bit worried about the fact that you won’t see him for five years. And another thing,” said the young man, “if his physics are right you will be getting old and he will be the same age he is now.”

“In five years I’ll be an old, old woman,” said the girl sarcastically, “and you’ll be an old, old man, and we’ll sit in the square in the sun and talk about all this. But right now let’s quit talking about it, because I see that little Shrill-voice ahead of us there is pricking up her ears.”

But she herself said one more thing. “If you’re so anxious to worry, worry about the Principles. That’s the one thing that is bothering me.”

Then they smiled at each other and were silent. And soon a wave of silence washed back to them as the head of the procession turned from the Street of the Scientists, lined with its wind-ruffled oaks, to the open shining Avenue of the Sun, where no person might speak without sacrilege.

The godsman raised his hands to the sun, and everyone else, entering the Avenue, bowed his head.

They marched in silence, formally, humbly, until at the Street of Ward, arms clashed in salute. Here were the apartments of the honorary militia, the warders. The street ran between their dwellings and the city wall. The warders had formed their squads on the flat roofs, and they were happily juggling their polished weapons; more effective for their sparkle and clang, wiseacres said, than for repelling the Bowmen.

During the previous generation, mobile units of the Public Law police had taken over the job of fighting the intermittent wars with the Bowmen. For that reason, as Snubnose knew well, the police would be especially vindictive in tracking down Bump-arch and Proudwalk if they attempted a Private Law marriage. The Public Law police hated anyone with genes of the Bowmen in his chromosomes.

The last squad of warders saluted, and the scientists trooped onto the Field of Proof. It was called in one of the songs of the Guild of Scientists “verdant place where truth doth reign.” But the place was only spottily verdant, because the apprentice biologists who were supposed to keep the Field grassed were not conscientious. They spent most of their time in the Ready Hall gossiping with prospective candidates.

Dust rose from large bare patches beneath the copper-tipped shoes of the scientists.

At a sign from the Grandmaster, the guildfolk spread in a single circle. The Grandmaster took his position at the center of the circle with the Candidate, the Candidate’s master, the kingsman, and the godsman.

The Bowman strain in Bump-arch was conspicuous, as he stood beside the others. It was marked by his height and by the unmistakable way the bones of his face shaped themselves. A romantic girl could look at him and think of a noble primitive and fall in love, Snubnose reflected. A family-proud dame could look at him and think of the public slaves--Bowmen captured in battle--sweating and stinking in the building gangs.

“What do I think?” Snubnose asked himself. He shrugged. “Bump-arch is my friend.”

He turned to say something to his sister, and he saw that she had left him. While the circle had been forming, she had moved a quarter way around. Now her eyes were fixed on her lover.

Snubnose felt vaguely hurt. He said to himself, childishly, “They’re up to something, and they’re treating me like a little boy again.”


“Time,” said the Grandmaster.

And what was time? Snubnose, the grown-up physicist, asked himself that question.

In his physics it was the denominator of velocity; squared, the denominator of acceleration. In old texts--incomplete, variously translated, little understood--it was called a dimension when multiplied by an imaginary number. But imaginary numbers had no place in physics. So it had been decided in 1480 DRC, at the historic conference of scientists, kingsmen, and godsmen. Imaginary numbers, with some other concepts, had been declared metaphysics and had been turned over to the godsmen. Just as neuroses, because of their traditional origin in sexual impulses, had been taken away from the psychologists and assigned to the kingsmen.

Snubnose remembered how Crookback had catechized the pair of them, Bump-arch and him, on the Principles. How did that one go? “Science appertains only to matter itself; not to the mysteries of matter or the desires of matter. The mysteries of matter belong to the gods, and the desires of matter belong to the king.”

Or something like that.

He hadn’t been quick with his lessons, like Bump-arch. His friend had scoffed at the Principles when alone with him, but had learned them by heart after a couple of offhand readings. Snubnose would sweat and sweat and think he had them, but when the time came to recite, the words would fly out the window into the fresh-smelling air.

Old Crookback had got so disgusted with him once that he had put him on bread and water. And then Bump-arch had sneaked out over the city wall and had caught a rabbit in a homemade trap and had talked one of the women of the settled Bowmen into cooking it for them. Gods, that had tasted good at midnight...

The circle of scientists was getting noisy. Snubnose’s nearest neighbors were loudly rehashing the latest Private Law marriage. Snubnose wondered suddenly, why didn’t the demonstration start? The Grandmaster had said, “Time.” Was there trouble?

In the center of the Field, while Bump-arch stood apart, the dignitaries were carrying on one of those exasperating public wrangles, obvious but inaudible. The godsman was doing most of the talking, waving a plump arm. The Grandmaster looked unhappy, the kingsman looked important, and Crookback looked polite.

The godsman was so excited he absent-mindedly scratched his bare buttock. He caught himself and blushed--a total affair for a godsman--and during his embarrassment, Crookback began to talk. The godsman kept shaking his head and interrupting, but Crookback went on talking, and finally the godsman seemed to give a reluctant consent.

The Grandmaster raised his hand high, with the fingers spread, and a girl apprentice burst from the door of the Ready Hall. She ran across the Field, and two scientists smilingly moved aside to let her through. She stood panting before the Grandmaster. He handed her the symbolic messenger’s key and spoke to her briefly--briefly for the Grandmaster.

She was off on the run.

Snubnose didn’t know what was happening, but it looked as if the godsman had made some kind of a concession. He was sure that must be for the good and felt relieved--until the Grandmaster, leaning on his copper staff, addressed the guildfolk.

The Grandmaster began: “The holy one submitted an objection concerning a possible violation of the Principles and proposed to forbid the demonstration by the Candidate.”

If that stood, Bump-arch would probably be tried for sacrilege in Godsmen’s Castle. Yet the godsman had seemed to give ground...

“Needless to say, both the distinguished master of the Candidate and I myself, speaking individually for ourselves, and, in my own case especially, speaking for the Guild of Scientists as a body, assured the holy one of our reverent adherence to the Principles, and--”

He was interrupted by the angry voice of the godsman.

“Get on!”

The guildfolk buzzed. As often as they might have liked to tell their Grandmaster to get on, this was an insult to the Guild. But they were quickly silent, for it was an insult they would have to swallow, at least in public.

The Grandmaster swallowed it too, visibly gulping, and he said mildly, “The holy one has generously agreed to submit the issue to the High arbiter of the Guild of Lawyers, and the High Arbiter has been sent for.”

It was the last thing said that alarmed Snubnose, and he looked at his sister and saw that for the first time her face was tight with unease. The High Arbiter was an old friend of their mother’s, which was not likely to make him a friend of theirs today. He moved in the same snobbish society as their mother and had many times clucked with her about Proudwalk’s “infatuation for that lowborn young man.”

Snubnose would have liked to leave his place in the circle of scientists and join Proudwalk, but it was against Acknowledged Custom to change position once the circle was formed.

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