The Fire and the Sword

by Frank M. Robinson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Nothing could have seemed pleasanter than that peaceful planet. Then why was a non-suicidal man driven to suicide there? Yet it made sense.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Why do people commit suicide?

Templin tightened his safety belt and lay back on the acceleration bunk. The lights in the cabin dimmed to a dull, red glow that meant the time for takeoff was nearing. He could hear noises from deep within the ship and the tiny whir of the ventilator fan, filling the air with the sweetish smell of sleeping gas. To sleep the trip away was better than to face the dull monotony of the stars for days on end.

Oh, they kill themselves for lots of reasons. Maybe ill health or financial messes or family difficulties. An unhappy love affair. Or more complex ones, if you went into it deeper. The failure to achieve an ambition, failure to live up to one’s own ideals. Weltschmerz, perhaps.

He could smell the bitter fragrance of tobacco smoke mingling with the gas. Eckert had lit a cigarette and was calmly blowing the smoke at the neon “No Smoking” sign, which winked on and off in mechanical disapproval.

He turned his head slightly so he could just see Eckert in the bank facing him. Eckert, one of the good gray men in the Service. The old reliables, the ones who could take almost anything in their stride because, at one time or another, they had had to.

It was Eckert who had come into his office several days ago and told him that Don Pendleton had killed himself.

Only Pendleton wasn’t the type. He was the kind who have everything to live for, the kind you instinctively know will amount to something someday. And that was a lousy way to remember him. The clichés always come first. Your memory plays traitor and boils friendship down to the status of a breakfast food testimonial.

The soft red lights seemed to be dancing in the darkness of the cabin. Eckert was just a dull, formless blur opposite him. His cigarette was out.

Eckert had come into his office without saying a word and had watched his scenery-window. It had been snowing in the window, the white flakes making a simple pattern drifting past the glass. Eckert had fiddled with the controls and changed it to sunshine, then to a weird mixture of hail amid the brassy, golden sunlight.

And then Eckert had told him that Pendleton had taken the short way out.

He shouldn’t get sentimental. But how the hell else should he remember Pendleton? Try to forget it and drink a toast to him at the next class reunion? And never, never be so crude as to speculate why Pendleton should have done it? If, of course, he had...

The cabin was hazy in the reddish glow, the sleeping gas a heavy perfume.

Eckert and he had talked it out and gone over the records. Pendleton had come of good stock. There had been no mental instability in his family for as far back as the genetic records went. He had been raised in a middle-class neighborhood and attended a local grammar school where he had achieved average grades and had given his instructors the normal amount of trouble. Later, when he had made up his mind to enter the Diplomatic Service, his grades had improved. He had worked hard at it, though he wasn’t what you would call a grind. In high school and later in college, he was the well-balanced type, athletic, popular, hard-working.

How long would it be before memories faded and all there was left of Pendleton was a page of statistics? He had been on this team, he had been elected president of that, he had graduated with such and such honors. But try getting a picture of him by reading the records, resurrect him from a page of black print. Would he be human? Would he be flesh and blood? Hell, no! In the statistics Pendleton was the All-Around Boy, the cold marble statue with the finely chiseled muscles and the smooth, blank sockets where the eyes should be. Maybe someday fate would play a trick on a hero-worshiping public and there would actually be kids like that. But they wouldn’t be human; they wouldn’t be born. Parents would get them by sending in so many box tops.

He was drowsy; the room was filled with the gas now. It would be only a matter of minutes before he would be asleep.

Pendleton had been in his second year as attache on Tunpesh, a small planet with a G-type sun. The Service had stumbled across it recently and decided the system was worth diplomatic recognition of some kind, so Pendleton had been sent there. He had been the first attache to be sent and naturally he had gone alone.

There was no need to send more. Tunpesh had been inspected and certified and approved. The natives were primitive and friendly. Or maybe the Service had slipped up, as it sometimes did, and Tunpesh had received something less than a thorough survey.

And then an unscheduled freighter had put in for repairs, one of the very few ships that ever came by Tunpesh. The captain had tried to pay his respects to Pendleton. Only Pendleton wasn’t there. The natives said he had killed himself and showed the captain the little flower-covered plot where they had buried him.

Tunpesh had been Pendleton’s second assignment.

The natives were oh-so-friendly. So friendly that he had made sure that a certain box was on board, filled with shiny atomic rifles, needle pistols, and the fat little gas guns. They might be needed. People like Pendleton didn’t kill themselves, did they? No, they didn’t. But sometimes they were murdered.

It was almost black inside the cabin now; only a thin red line around the ceiling told how close they were to takeoff. His head was thick with drowsiness, his eyelids a heavy weight that he knew he couldn’t keep open much longer.

Eckert and he had been chosen to go to Tunpesh and investigate. The two of them, working together, should be able to find out why Pendleton had killed himself.

But that wasn’t the real reason. Maybe Eckert thought so, but he knew better. The real reason they were going there was to find out why Pendleton had been killed and who had killed him. That was it.

Who had killed Cock Robin?

The thin red line was practically microscopic now and Templin could feel his lashes lying gently on his cheeks. But he wasn’t asleep--not quite. There was something buzzing about in the dim recesses of his mind.

Their information on Tunpesh was limited. They knew that it had no trading concessions or armed forces and that nobody from neighboring systems seemed to know much about it or even visited it. But a staff anthropologist must have been routinely assigned to Tunpesh to furnish data and reports.

“Ted?” he murmured sleepily.

A faint stirring in the black bulk opposite him. “Yes?”

“How come our anthropologist on Tunpesh didn’t come across with more information?”

A drowsy mumble from the other cot: “He wasn’t there long enough. He committed suicide not long after landing.”

The room was a whirling pool of blackness into which his mind was slowly slipping. Takeoff was only seconds away.

Why do people commit suicide?

“It’s a nice day, isn’t it, Ted?” Eckert took a deep and pleasurable breath. “It’s the type of day that makes you feel good just to be alive.”

Warm breezes rustled through Eckert’s graying hair and tugged gently at his tunic. The air smelled as if it had been washed and faintly perfumed with the balsamy scent of something very much like pine. A few hundred yards away, a forest towered straight and slim and coolly inviting, and brilliantly colored birds whirled and fluttered in the foliage.

The rocketport, where they were standing surrounded by their luggage, was a grassy valley where the all too infrequent ships could land and discharge cargo or make repairs. There was a blackened patch on it now, with little blast-ignited flames dying out around the edges. It won’t be long before it will be green again, he thought. The grass looked as though it grew fast--it would certainly have plenty of time to grow before the next ship landed.

He looked at the slim, dwindling shape that was the rocket, and was suddenly, acutely aware that he and Templin would be stranded for six months on a foreign and very possibly dangerous planet. And there would be no way of calling for help or of leaving before the six months were up.

He stood there for a moment, drinking in the fresh air and feeling the warmth of the sun against his face. It might be a pleasant six months at that, away from the din and the hustle and confusion, spending the time in a place where the sun was warm and inviting.

I must be getting old, he thought, thinking about the warmth and comfort. Like old dogs and octogenarians.

Templin was looking at the scenery with a disappointed expression on his face. Eckert stole a side glance at him and for a fleeting moment felt vaguely concerned. “Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t look like cloak-and-dagger right off, Ray. What seems innocent enough on the surface can prove to be quite dangerous underneath.”

“It’s rather hard to think of danger in a setting like this.”

Eckert nodded agreement. “It wouldn’t fit, would it? It would be like a famous singer suddenly doing a jazz number in an opera, or having the princess in a fairy tale turn out to be ugly.” He gestured toward the village. “You could hardly class that as dangerous from its outward appearance, could you?”

The rocketport was in a small valley, surrounded by low, wooded hills. The village started where the port left off and crawled and wound over the wooded ridges. Small houses of sun-baked, white-washed mud crouched in the shadow of huge trees and hugged the banks of a small stream.

It looked fairly primitive, Eckert thought, and yet it didn’t have the earmarks, the characteristics of most primitive villages. It didn’t seem cluttered or dirty and you didn’t feel like beating a hasty retreat when the wind was blowing toward you.

A few adults were watching them curiously and the usual bunch of kids that always congregated around rocketports quickly gathered. Eckert stared at them for a moment, wondering what it was that seemed odd about them, and they stared back with all the alert dignity of childhood. They finally came out on the field and clustered around him and Templin.

Templin studied them warily. “Better watch them, Ted. Even kids can be dangerous.”

It’s because you never suspect kids, Eckert thought, you never think they’ll do any harm. But they can be taught. They could do as much damage with a knife as a man could, for instance. And they might have other weapons.

But the idea still didn’t go with the warm sun and the blue sky and the piny scent of the trees.

One of the adults of the village started to walk toward them.

“The reception committee,” Templin said tightly. His hand went inside his tunic.

He couldn’t be blamed for being jumpy, Eckert realized. This was his first time out, his first mission like this. And, of course, Pendleton had been a pretty good friend of his.

“I’d be very careful what I did,” Eckert said softly. “I would hate to start something merely because I misunderstood their intentions.”

The committee of one was a middle-aged man dressed in a simple strip of white cloth twisted about his waist and allowed to hang freely to his knees. When he got closer, Eckert became less sure of his age. He had the firm, tanned musculature of a much younger man, though a slightly seamed face and white hair aged him somewhat. Eckert still had the feeling that if you wanted to know his exact age, you’d have to look at his teeth or know something about his epiphyseal closures.

“You are menshars from Earth?” The voice was husky and pleasant and the pronunciation was very clear. Eckert regarded him thoughtfully and made a few mental notes. He wasn’t bowing and scraping like most natives who weren’t too familiar with visitors from the sky, and yet he was hardly either friendly or hostile.

“You learned our language from Pendleton and Reynolds?” Reynolds had been the anthropologist.

“We have had visitors from Earth before.” He hesitated a moment and then offered his hand, somewhat shyly, Eckert thought, in the Terrestrial sign of greeting. “You may call me Jathong if you wish.” He paused a moment to say something in his native tongue to the kids who were around. They promptly scattered and picked up the luggage. “While you are here, you will need a place to stay. There is one ready, if you will follow me.”

He was polite, Eckert thought. He didn’t ask what they were there for or how long they were going to stay. But then again, perhaps the natives were a better judge of that than he and Templin.

The town was larger than he had thought at first, stretching over a wide expanse of the countryside. There wasn’t, so far as he could see, much manufacturing above the level of handicrafts and simple weaving. Colored patches on far hillsides indicated the presence of farms, and practically every house in the village had its small garden.

What manufacturing there was seemed to be carried on in the central square of the town, where a few adults and children squatted in the warm afternoon sun and worked industriously at potter’s wheels and weaver’s looms. The other part of the square was given over to the native bazaar where pots and bolts of cloth were for sale, and where numerous stalls were loaded with dried fruits and vegetables and the cleaned and plucked carcasses of the local variety of fowl.

It was late afternoon when they followed Jathong into a small, white-washed house midway up a hill.

“You are free to use this while you are here,” he said.

Eckert and Templin took a quick tour of the few rooms. They were well furnished, in a rustic sort of way, and what modern conveniences they didn’t have they could easily do without. The youngsters who had carried their luggage left it outside and quietly faded away. It was getting dark; Eckert opened one of the boxes they had brought along, took out an electric lantern and lighted it. He turned to Jathong.

“You’ve been very kind to us and we would like to repay you. You may take what you wish of anything within this box.” He opened another of the boxes and displayed the usual trade goods--brightly colored cloth and finely worked jewelry and a few mechanical contrivances that Eckert knew usually appealed to the primitive imagination.

Jathong ran his hand over the cloth and held some of the jewelry up to the light. Eckert knew by the way he looked at it that he wasn’t at all impressed. “I am grateful,” he said finally, “but there is nothing I want.” He turned and walked away into the gathering darkness.

“The incorruptible native.” Templin laughed sarcastically.

Eckert shrugged. “That’s one of the things you do out of habit, try and buy some of the natives so you’ll have friends in case you need them.” He stopped for a moment, thinking. “Did you notice the context? He didn’t say he didn’t want what we showed him. He said there was nothing that he wanted. Implying that everything he wanted, he already had.”

“That’s not very typical of a primitive society, is it?”

“No, I’m afraid it’s not.” Eckert started unpacking some of the boxes. “You know, Ray, I got a kick out of the kids. They’re a healthy-looking lot, aren’t they?”

“Too healthy,” Templin said. “There didn’t seem to be any sick ones or ones with runny noses or cuts or black eyes or bruises. It doesn’t seem natural.”

“They’re probably just well brought-up kids,” Eckert said sharply. “Maybe they’ve been taught not to get in fights or play around in the mud on the way home from school.” He felt faintly irritated, annoyed at the way Templin had put it, as if any deviation from an Earth norm was potentially dangerous.

“Ted.” Templin’s voice was strained. “This could be a trap, you know.”

“In what way?”

The words came out slowly. “The people are too casual, as though they’re playing a rehearsed part. Here we are, from an entirely different solar system, landed in what must be to them an unusual manner. They couldn’t have seen rockets more than three or four times before. It should still be a novelty to them. And yet how much curiosity did they show? Hardly any. Was there any fear? No. And the cute, harmless little kids.” He looked at Eckert. “Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to think--just an idyllic, harmless society. Maybe that’s what Pendleton thought, right to the very end.”

He was keyed up, jumpy, Eckert realized. He would probably be seeing things in every shadow and imagining danger to be lurking around every corner.

“It hasn’t been established yet that Pendleton was killed, Ray. Let’s keep an open mind until we know for certain.”

He flicked out the light and lay back on the cool bed, letting his body relax completely. The cool night wind blew lazily through the wood slat blinds, carrying the fragrance of the trees and the grass, and he inhaled deeply and let his thoughts wander for a moment. It was going to be pleasant to live on Tunpesh for six months--even if the six months were all they had to live. The climate was superb and the people seemed a cut above the usual primitive culture. If he ever retired some day, he thought suddenly, he would have to remember Tunpesh. It would be pleasant to spend his old age here. And the fishing was probably excellent...

He turned his head a little to watch Templin get ready for bed. There were advantages in taking him along that Templin probably didn’t even realize. He wondered what Templin would do if he ever found out that the actual reason he had been chosen to go was that his own psychological chart was very close to Pendleton’s. Pendleton’s own feelings and emotions would almost exactly be duplicated in Templin’s.

A few stray wisps of starlight pierced through the blinds and sparkled for an instant on a small metal box strapped to Templin’s waist. A power pack, Eckert saw grimly, probably leading to the buttons on his tunic. A very convenient, portable, and hard to detect weapon.

There were disadvantages in taking Templin, too.

“Just how primitive do you think the society is, Ted?”

Eckert put down the chain he had been whittling and reached for his pipe and tobacco.

“I don’t think it’s primitive at all. There are too many disparities. Their knowledge of a lot of things is a little more than empirical knowledge; they associate the growth of crops with fertilizer and nitrogen in the soil as well as sunlight, rather than the blessings of some native god. And they differ a lot in other respects. Their art and their music are advanced. Free art exists along with purely decorative art, and their techniques are finely developed.”

“I’m glad you agree, then. Take a look at this.” Templin threw a shiny bit of metal on the rough-hewn table. Eckert picked it up and inspected it. It was heavy and one side of it was extremely sharp.

“What’s it for?”

“They’ve got a hospital set up here. Not a hospital like any we know, of course, but a hospital nonetheless. It’s not used very much; apparently the natives don’t get sick here. But occasionally there are hunting accidents and injuries that require surgery. The strip of metal there is a scalpel.” He laughed shortly. “Primitive little gadget, but it works well--as well as any of ours.”

Eckert hefted it in his palm. “The most important thing is that they have the knowledge to use it. Surgery isn’t a simple science.”

“Well, what do you think about it?”

“The obvious. They evidently have as much technology as they want, at least in fields where they have to have it.”

“How come they haven’t gone any further?”

“Why should they? You can live without skycars and rocket ships, you know.”

“Did you ever wonder what kind of weapons they might have?”

“The important thing,” Eckert mused, “is not if they have them, but if they’d use them. And I rather doubt that they would. We’ve been here for two weeks now and they’ve been very kind to us, seeing that we’ve had food and water and what fuel we need.”

“It’s known in the livestock trade as being fattened up for the slaughter,” Templeton said.

Eckert sighed and watched a fat bug waddle across a small patch of sunlight on the wooden floor. It was bad enough drawing an assignment in a totally foreign culture, even if the natives were humanoid. It complicated things beyond all measure when your partner in the project seemed likely to turn into a vendettist. It meant that Eckert would have to split his energies. He’d have to do what investigating he could among the Tunpeshans, and he’d have to watch Templin to see that he didn’t go off half-cocked and spoil everything.

“You’re convinced that Pendleton was murdered, aren’t you?”

Templin nodded. “Sure.”


“The Tunpeshans know why we’re here. We’ve dropped enough hints along those lines. But nobody has mentioned Pendleton; nobody has volunteered any information about him. And he was an attache here for three years. Didn’t anybody know him during that time? We’ve let slip a few discreet statements that we would like to talk to Pendleton’s friends, yet nobody’s come around. Apparently, in all the three years he was here, Pendleton didn’t make any friends. And that’s a little hard to believe. It’s more likely that his friends have been silenced and any information about him is being withheld for a reason.”

“What reason?”

Templin shrugged. “Murder. What other reason could there be?”

Eckert rolled up the thin, slatted blinds and stared out at the scenery. A hundred feet down the road, a native woman was going to market, leading a species of food animal by the halter.

“They grow their women nice, don’t they?”

“Physically perfect, like the men,” Templin grumbled. “You could get an inferiority complex just from watching the people here. Everybody’s so damn perfect. Nobody’s sick, nobody’s unhealthy, nobody is too fat or too thin, nobody’s unhappy. The only variation is that they don’t all look alike. Perfection. It gets boring after a while.”

“Does it? I hadn’t noticed.” Eckert turned away from the blinds. His voice was crisp. “I knew Don Pendleton quite well, too,” he said. “But it isn’t blinding me to what I’m here for. We came to find out what happened to him, not to substantiate any preconceived notions. What we find out may be vitally important to anybody serving here in the future. I would hate to see our efforts spoiled because you’ve already made up your mind.”

“You knew Pendleton,” Templin repeated grimly. “Do you think it was suicide?”

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a suicide type, when you come down to it. I’m not ruling out the possibility of murder, either. I’m trying to keep an open mind.”

“What have we accomplished so far? What have we found out?”

“We’ve got six months,” Eckert said quietly. “Six months in which we’ll try to live here inconspicuously and study the people and try to cultivate informants. We would get nowhere if we came barging in asking all sorts of questions. And don’t forget, Ray, we’re all alone on Tunpesh. If it is a case of murder, what happens when the natives find out that we know it is?”

Templin’s eyes dueled for a moment. Then he turned his back and walked to the window. “I suppose you’re right,” he said at last. “It’s nice living here, Ted. Maybe I’ve been fighting it. But I can’t help thinking that Don must have liked it here, too.”

One of the hardest things to learn in a foreign culture, Eckert thought, is when to enjoy yourself, when to work and when to worry.

Pelache, menshar?

Sharra!“ He took the small bowl of pelache nuts, helped himself to a few, and passed the bowl on. This was definitely the time to enjoy himself, not to work or worry. He had heard about the halera a few days ago, and, by judicious hinting to the proper authorities, he and Templin had been invited. It was a good chance to observe native customs. A little anthropology--with refreshments.

The main courses started making the rounds and he took generous helpings of the roasted ulami and the broiled halunch and numerous dabs from the side dishes of steaming vegetables. Between every course, they passed around a small flagon of the hot, spiced native wine, but he noticed that nobody drank to excess.

The old Greek ideal, he thought: moderation in everything.

He looked at Templin, sitting across from him in the huge circle, and shrugged mentally. Templin looked as if he was about to break down and enjoy himself, but there was still a slight bulge under his tunic, where he had strapped his power pack. Any fool should have known that nothing would happen at a banquet like this. The only actual danger lay in Templin’s getting excited and doing something he was bound to regret later on. And even that danger was not quite as likely now.

There will be hell to pay, Eckert thought, if Templin ever finds out that I sabotaged his power pack.

“You look thoughtful, menshar Eckert.”

Eckert took another sip of the wine and turned to the Tunpeshan on his left. He was a tall, muscular man with sharp eyes, a firm chin and a certain aura of authority.

“I was wondering if my countryman Pendleton had offended your people in any way, Nayova.” Now was as good a time as any to pump him for what he knew about Pendleton’s death.

“So far as I know, menshar Pendleton offended no one. I do not know what duties he had to perform here, but he was a generous and courteous man.”

Eckert gnawed the dainty meat off a slender ulami bone and tried to appear casual in his questioning.

“I am sure he was, Nayova. I am sure, too, that you were as kind to him as you have been to Templin and myself. My Government is grateful to you for that.”

Nayova seemed pleased. “We tried to do as well for menshar Pendleton as we could. While he was here, he had the house that you have now and we saw that he was supplied with food and all other necessities.”

Eckert had a sudden clammy feeling which quickly passed away. What Nayova had said was something he’d make sure Templin never heard about. He wiped his mouth on a broad, flat leaf that had been provided and took another sip of the wine.

“We were shocked to find out that menshar Pendleton had killed himself. We knew him quite well and we could not bring ourselves to believe he had done such a thing.”

Nayova’s gaze slid away from him. “Perhaps it was the will of the Great One,” he said vaguely. He didn’t seem anxious to talk about it.

Eckert stared bleakly at his wine glass and tried to put the pieces of information together. They probably had a taboo about self-destruction which would make it difficult to talk about. That would make it even harder for him to find out by direct questioning.

A native fife trilled shrilly and a group of young men and women walked into the room. The circle broke to let them through and they came and knelt before Nayova. When he clapped his hands sharply, they retreated to the center of the circle and began the slow motions of a native dance.

The sound of the fife softened and died and the slow monotonous beat of drums took its place. The beat slowly increased and so did the rhythm of the dancers. The small fires at the corners of the hut were allowed to dwindle and the center of the circle became filled with the motions of shadows intermixed with the swift, sure movements of glistening limbs. Eckert felt his eyebrows crawl upward. Apparently the dance was the Tunpeshan version of the rites de passage. He glanced across the circle at Templin. Templin’s face--what he could see of it by the flickering light--was brick red.

A voice spoke in his ear. “It is hard for us to imagine anybody doing what menshar Pendleton did. It is...” and he used a native word that Eckert translated as being roughly equivalent to “obscene.”

The dancers at the center of the circle finally bowed out with small garlands of flowers on their heads that signified their reaching adulthood. Acrobats then took the stage and went through a dizzying routine, and they in turn were succeeded by a native singer.

They were all excellent, Eckert thought. If anything, they were too good.

The bowl of pelache nuts made its way around again and Nayova leaned over to speak to him. “If there is any possibility that I can help you while you are here, menshar Eckert, you have but to ask.”

It would probably be a mistake to ask for a list of Pendleton’s friends, but there was a way around that. “I would like to meet any of your people who had dealings with Pendleton, either in business or socially. I will do everything not to inconvenience them in any way.”

“I think they would be glad to help you. I shall ask them to go to you this coming week.”

It wasn’t a driving rain, just a gentle drizzle that made the lanes muddy and plastered Eckert’s tunic against him. He didn’t mind it; the rain was warm and the trees and grass smelled good in the wet.

“How would you classify the culture after seeing the ceremony, Ted?” Templin asked.

“About what you would expect. An Apollonian culture, simple and dignified. Nothing in excess, no striving for great emotional release.”

There is more of this story...
The source of this story is SciFi-Stories

To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)

Get No-Registration Temporary Access*

* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.