Anketam stretched his arms out as though he were trying to embrace the whole world. He pushed himself up on his tiptoes, arched his back, and gave out with a prodigious yawn that somehow managed to express all the contentment and pleasure that filled his soul. He felt a faint twinge in his shoulders, and there was a dull ache in the small of his back, both of which reminded him that he was no longer the man he had been twenty years before, but he ignored them and stretched again.
He was still strong, Anketam thought; still strong enough to do his day’s work for The Chief without being too tired to relax and enjoy himself afterwards. At forty-five, he had a good fifteen years more before he’d be retired to minor make-work jobs, doing the small chores as a sort of token in justification of his keep in his old age.
He settled his heels back to the ground and looked around at the fields of green shoots that surrounded him. That part of the job was done, at least. The sun’s lower edge was just barely touching the western horizon, and all the seedlings were in. Anketam had kept his crew sweating to get them all in, but now the greenhouses were all empty and ready for seeding in the next crop while this one grew to maturity. But that could wait. By working just a little harder, for just a little longer each day, he and his crew had managed to get the transplanting done a good four days ahead of schedule, which meant four days of fishing or hunting or just plain loafing. The Chief didn’t care how a man spent his time, so long as the work was done.
He thumbed his broad-brimmed hat back from his forehead and looked up at the sky. There were a few thin clouds overhead, but there was no threat of rain, which was good. In this part of Xedii, the spring rains sometimes hit hard and washed out the transplanted seedlings before they had a chance to take root properly. If rain would hold off for another ten days, Anketam thought, then it could fall all it wanted. Meanwhile, the irrigation reservoir was full to brimming, and that would supply all the water the young shoots needed to keep them from being burnt by the sun.
He lowered his eyes again, this time to look at the next section over toward the south, where Jacovik and his crew were still working. He could see their bent figures outlined against the horizon, just at the brow of the slope, and he grinned to himself. He had beaten Jacovik out again.
Anketam and Jacovik had had a friendly feud going for years, each trying to do a better, faster job than the other. None of the other supervisors on The Chief’s land came even close to beating out Anketam or Jacovik, so it was always between the two of them, which one came out on top. Sometimes it was one, sometimes the other.
At the last harvest, Jacovik had been very pleased with himself when the tallies showed that he’d beaten out Anketam by a hundred kilos of cut leaves. But The Chief had taken him down a good bit when the report came through that Anketam’s leaves had made more money because they were better quality.
He looked all around the horizon. From here, only Jacovik’s section could be seen, and only Jacovik’s men could be seen moving.
When Anketam’s gaze touched the northern horizon, his gray eyes narrowed a little. There was a darkness there, a faint indication of cloud build-up. He hoped it didn’t mean rain. Getting the transplants in early was all right, but it didn’t count for anything if they were washed out.
He pushed the thought out of his mind. Rain or no rain, there was nothing could be done about it except put up shelters over the rows of plants. He’d just have to keep an eye on the northern horizon and hope for the best. He didn’t want to put up the shelters unless he absolutely had to, because the seedlings were invariably bruised in the process and that would cut the leaf yield way down. He remembered one year when Jacovik had gotten panicky and put up his shelters, and the storm had been a gentle thing that only lasted a few minutes before it blew over. Anketam had held off, ready to make his men work in the rain if necessary, and when the harvest had come, he’d beaten Jacovik hands down.
Anketam pulled his hat down again and turned to walk toward his house in the little village that he and his crew called home. He had warned his wife to have supper ready early. “I figure on being finished by sundown,” he’d said. “You can tell the other women I said so. But don’t say anything to them till after we’ve gone to the fields. I don’t want those boys thinking about the fishing they’re going to do tomorrow and then get behind in their work because they’re daydreaming.”
The other men were already gone; they’d headed back to the village as fast as they could move as soon as he’d told them the job was finished. Only he had stayed to look at the fields and see them all finished, each shoot casting long shadows in the ruddy light of the setting sun. He’d wanted to stand there, all by himself feeling the glow of pride and satisfaction that came over him, knowing that he was better than any other supervisor on The Chief’s vast acreage.
His own shadow grew long ahead of him as he walked back, his steps still brisk and springy, in spite of the day’s hard work.
The sun had set and twilight had come by the time he reached his own home. He had glanced again toward the north, and had been relieved to see that the stars were visible near the horizon. The clouds couldn’t be very thick.
Overhead, the great, glowing cloud of the Dragon Nebula shed its soft light. That’s what made it possible to work after sundown in the spring; at that time of year, the Dragon Nebula was at its brightest during the early part of the evening. The tail of it didn’t vanish beneath the horizon until well after midnight. In the autumn, it wasn’t visible at all, and the nights were dark except for the stars.
Anketam pushed open the door of his home and noted with satisfaction that the warm smells of cooking filled the air, laving his nostrils and palate with fine promises. He stopped and frowned as he heard a man’s voice speaking in low tones in the kitchen.
Then Memi’s voice called out: “Is that you, Ank?”
“Yeah,” he said, walking toward the kitchen. “It’s me.”
“We’ve got company,” she said. “Guess who.”
“I don’t claim to be much good at guessing,” said Anketam. “I’ll have to peek.”
He stopped at the door of the kitchen and grinned widely when he saw who the man was. “Russat! Well, by heaven, it’s good to see you!”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then a minute or two of handshaking and backslapping as the two brothers both tried to speak at the same time. Anketam heard himself repeating: “Yessir! By heaven, it’s good to see you! Real good!”
And Russat was saying: “Same here, Ank! And, gee, you’re looking great. I mean, real great! Tough as ever, eh, Ank?”
“Yeah, sure, tough as ever. Sit down, boy. Memi! Pour us something hot and get that bottle out of the cupboard!”
Anketam pushed his brother back towards the chair and made him sit down, but Russat was protesting: “Now, wait a minute! Now, just you hold on, Ank! Don’t be getting out your bottle just yet. I brought some real stuff! I mean, expensive--stuff you can’t get very easy. I brought it just for you, and you’re going to have some of it before you say another word. Show him, Memi.”
Memi was standing there, beaming, holding the bottle. Her blue eyes had faded slowly in the years since she and Anketam had married, but there was a sparkle in them now. Anketam looked at the bottle.
“Bedamned,” he said softly. The bottle was beautiful just as it was. It was a work of art in itself, with designs cut all through it and pretty tracings of what looked like gold thread laced in and out of the surface. And it was full to the neck with a clear, red-brown liquid. Anketam thought of the bottle in his own cupboard--plain, translucent plastic, filled with the water-white liquor rationed out from the commissary--and he suddenly felt very backwards and countryish. He scratched thoughtfully at his beard and said: “Well, Well. I don’t know, Russ--I don’t know. You think a plain farmer like me can take anything that fancy?”
Russat laughed, a little embarrassed. “Sure you can. You mean to say you’ve never had brandy before? Why, down in Algia, our Chief--” He stopped.
Anketam didn’t look at him. “Sure, Russ; sure. I’ll bet Chief Samas gives a drink to his secretary, too, now and then.” He turned around and winked. “But this stuff is for brain work, not farming.”
He knew Russat was embarrassed. The boy was nearly ten years younger than Anketam, but Anketam knew that his younger brother had more brains and ability, as far as paper work went, than he, himself, would ever have. The boy (Anketam reminded himself that he shouldn’t think of Russat as a boy--after all, he was thirty-six now) had worked as a special secretary for one of the important chiefs in Algia for five years now. Anketam noticed, without criticism, that Russat had grown soft with the years. His skin was almost pink, bleached from years of indoor work, and looked pale and sickly, even beside Memi’s sun-browned skin--and Memi hadn’t been out in the sun as much as her husband had.
Anketam reached out and took the bottle carefully from his wife’s hands. Her eyes watched him searchingly; she had been aware of the subtleties of the exchange between her rough, hard-working, farmer husband and his younger, brighter, better-educated brother.
Anketam said: “If this is a present, I guess I’d better open it.” He peeled off the seal, then carefully removed the glass stopper and sniffed at the open mouth of the beautiful bottle. “Hm-m-m! Say!” Then he set the bottle down carefully on the table. “You’re the guest, Russ, so you can pour. That tea ready yet, Memi?”
“Coming right up,” said his wife gratefully. “Coming right up.”
Anketam watched Russat carefully pour brandy into the cups of hot, spicy tea that Memi set before them. Then he looked up, grinned at his wife, and said: “Pour yourself a cup, honey. This is an occasion. A big occasion.”
She nodded quickly, very pleased, and went over to get another cup.
“What brings you up here, Russ?” Anketam asked. “I hope you didn’t just decide to pick up a bottle of your Chief’s brandy and then take off.” He chuckled after he said it, but he was more serious than he let on. He actually worried about Russat at times. The boy might just take it in his head to do something silly.
Russat laughed and shook his head. “No, no. I’m not crazy, and I’m not stupid--at least, I think not. No; I got to go up to Chromdin. My Chief is sending word that he’s ready to supply goods for the war.”
Anketam frowned. He’d heard that there might be war, of course. There had been all kinds of rumors about how some of the Chiefs were all for fighting, but Anketam didn’t pay much attention to these rumors. In the first place, he knew that it was none of his business; in the second place, he didn’t think there would be any war. Why should anyone pick on Xedii?
What war would mean if it did come, Anketam had no idea, but he didn’t think the Chiefs would get into a war they couldn’t finish. And, he repeated to himself, he didn’t believe there would be a war.
He said as much to Russat.
His brother looked up at him in surprise. “You mean you haven’t heard?”
“Why, the war’s already started. Sure. Five, six days ago. We’re at war, Ank.”
Anketam’s frown grew deeper. He knew that there were other planets besides Xedii; he had heard that some of the stars in the sky were planets and suns. He didn’t really understand how that could be, but even The Chief had said it was true, so Anketam accepted it as he did the truth about God. It was so, and that was enough for Anketam. Why should he bother himself with other people’s business?
“How’d it happen?” he asked.
Russat sipped at his hot drink before answering. Behind him, Memi moved slowly around the cooker, pretending to be finishing the meal, pretending not to be listening.
“Well, I don’t have all the information,” Russat said, pinching his little short beard between thumb and forefinger. “But I do know that the Chiefs didn’t want the embassy in Chromdin.”
“No,” said Anketam. “I suppose not.”
“I understand they have been making all kinds of threats,” Russat said. “Trying to tell everybody what to do. They think they run all of Creation, I guess. Anyway, they were told to pull out right after the last harvest. They refused to do it, and for a while nobody did anything. Then, last week, the President ordered the Army to throw ‘em out--bag and baggage. There was some fighting, I understand, but they got out finally. Now they’ve said they’re going to smash us.” He grinned.
Anketam said: “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, they won’t do anything,” said Russat. “They fume and fuss a lot, but they won’t do anything.”
“I hope not,” said Anketam. He finished the last of his spiked tea, and Memi poured him another one. “I don’t see how they have any right to tell us how to live or how to run our own homes. They ought to mind their own business and leave us alone.”
“You two finish those drinks,” said Memi, “and quit talking about wars. The food will be ready pretty quickly.”
“Good,” said Anketam. “I’m starved.” And, he admitted to himself, the brandy and hot tea had gone to his head. A good meal would make him feel better.
Russat said: “I don’t get much of a chance to eat Memi’s cooking; I’ll sure like this meal.”
“You can stay for breakfast in the morning, can’t you?” Anketam asked.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to put you to all that trouble. I have to be up to your Chief’s house before sunrise.”
“We get up before sunrise,” Anketam said flatly. “You can stay for breakfast.”
The spring planting did well. The rains didn’t come until after the seedlings had taken root and anchored themselves well into the soil, and the rows showed no signs of heavy bruising. Anketam had been watching one section in particular, where young Basom had planted. Basom had a tendency to do a sloppy job, and if it had showed up as bruised or poorly planted seedlings, Anketam would have seen to it that Basom got what was coming to him.
But the section looked as good as anyone else’s, so Anketam said nothing to Basom.
Russat had come back after twenty days and reported that there was an awful lot of fuss in Chromdin, but nothing was really developing. Then he had gone on back home.
As spring became summer, Anketam pushed the war out of his mind. Evidently, there wasn’t going to be any real shooting. Except that two of The Chief’s sons had gone off to join the Army, things remained the same as always. Life went on as it had.
The summer was hot and almost windless. Work became all but impossible, except during the early morning and late afternoon. Fortunately, there wasn’t much that had to be done. At this stage of their growth, the plants pretty much took care of themselves.
Anketam spent most of his time fishing. He and Jacovik and some of the others would go down to the river and sit under the shade trees, out of the sun, and dangle their lines in the water. It really didn’t matter if they caught much or not; the purpose of fishing was to loaf and get away from the heat, not to catch fish. Even so, they always managed to bring home enough for a good meal at the end of the day.
The day that the war intruded on Anketam’s consciousness again had started off just like any other day. Anketam got his fishing gear together, including a lunch that Memi had packed for him, and gone over to pick up Blejjo.
Blejjo was the oldest man in the village. Some said he was over a hundred, but Blejjo himself only admitted to eighty. He’d been retired a long time back, and his only duties now were little odd jobs that were easy enough, even for an old man. Not that there was anything feeble about old Blejjo; he still looked and acted spry enough.
He was sitting on his front porch, talking to young Basom, when Anketam came up.
The old man grinned. “Hello, Ank. You figure on getting a few more fish today?”
“Why not? The river’s full of ‘em. Come along.”
“Don’t see why not,” said Blejjo. “What do you think, Basom?”
The younger man smiled and shook his head. “I’ll stay around home, I think. I’m too lazy today to go to all that effort.”
“Too lazy to loaf,” said Blejjo, laughing. “That’s as lazy as I ever heard.”
Anketam smiled, but he didn’t say anything. Basom was lazy, but Anketam never mentioned it unless the boy didn’t get his work done. Leave that sort of kidding up to the others; it wasn’t good for a supervisor to ride his men unless it was necessary for discipline.
Basom was a powerful young man, tall and well-proportioned. If the truth were known, he probably had the ability to get a good job from The Chief--become a secretary or something, like Russat. But he was sloppy in his work, and, as Blejjo had said, lazy. His saving grace was the fact that he took things as they came; he never showed any resentment towards Anketam if he was rebuked for not doing his work well, and he honestly tried to do better--for a while, at least.
“Not too lazy to loaf,” Basom said in self-defense. “Just too lazy to walk four miles to loaf when I can do it here.”
Old Blejjo was taking his fishing gear down from the rack on the porch. Without looking around, he said: “Cooler down by the river.”
“By the time I walked there,” said Basom philosophically, “walking through all that sun, I’d be so hot it would take me two hours to cool down to where I am now, and another two hours to cool down any more. That’s four hours wasted. Now--” He looked at Anketam with a sly grin. “Now, if you two wanted to carry me, I’d be much obliged. Anketam, you could carry me piggyback, while Blejjo goes over to fetch my pole. If you’d do that, I believe I could see my way clear to going fishing with you.”
Anketam shook his head positively. “I’m afraid the sun would do you in, anyway.”
“Maybe you’d like The Chief to carry you,” said Blejjo. There was a bite in his voice.
“Now, wait,” Basom said apprehensively, “I didn’t say anything like that. I didn’t mean it that way.”
Blejjo pointed his fishing pole at the youth. “You ought to be thankful you’ve got Anketam for a supervisor. There’s some supers who’d boot you good for a crack like that.”
Basom cast appealing eyes at Anketam. “I am thankful! You know I am! Why, you’re the best super in the barony! Everybody knows that. I was only kidding. You know that.”
Before Anketam could say anything, the old man said: “You can bet your life that no other super in this barony would put up with your laziness!”
“Now, Blejjo,” said Anketam, “leave the boy alone. He meant no harm. If he needs talking to, I’ll do the talking.”
Basom looked gratefully reprieved.
“Sorry, Ank,” said Blejjo. “It’s just that some of these young people have no respect for their elders.” He looked at Basom and smiled. “Didn’t mean to take it out on you, Bas. There’s a lot worse than you.” Then, changing his tone: “Sure you don’t want to come with us?”
Basom looked apologetic, but he stuck to his guns. “No. Thanks again, but--” He grinned self-consciously. “To be honest, I was thinking of going over to see Zillia. Her dad said I could come.”
Anketam grinned at the boy. “Well, now, that’s an excuse I’ll accept. Come on, Blejjo, this is not a sport for old men like us. Fishing is more our speed.”
Chuckling, Blejjo shouldered his fishing pole, and the two men started down the dusty village street toward the road that led to the river.
They walked in silence for a while, trying to ignore the glaring sun that brought the sweat out on their skins, soaking the sweatbands of their broad-brimmed hats and running in little rivulets down their bodies.
“I kind of feel sorry for that boy,” old Blejjo said at last.
“Oh?” said Anketam. “How so? He’ll get along. He’s improving. Why, he did as good a job of transplanting as any man this spring. Last year, he bruised the seedlings, but I gave him a good dressing down and he remembered it. He’ll be all right.”
“I’m not talking about that, Ank,” said the old man, “I mean him and Zillia. He’s really got a case on with that girl.”
“Anything wrong with that? A young fellow’s got a right to fall in love, hasn’t he? And Zillia seems pretty keen on him, too. If her father doesn’t object, everything ought to go along pretty smoothly.”
“Her father might not object,” said Blejjo, looking down at his feet as they paced off the dusty road. “But there’s others who might object.”
“Who, for instance?”
Blejjo was silent for several steps. Then he said: “Well, Kevenoe, for one.”
Anketam thought that over in silence. Kevenoe was on The Chief’s staff at the castle. Like many staff men--including, Anketam thought wryly, his own brother Russat, on occasion--he tended to lord it over the farmers who worked the land. “Kevenoe has an eye on Zillia?” he asked after a moment.
“I understand he’s asked Chief Samas for her as soon as she’s eighteen. That would be this fall, after harvest.”
“I see,” Anketam said thoughtfully. He didn’t ask how the old man had come about his knowledge. Old Blejjo had little to do, and on the occasions that he had to do some work around The Chief’s castle, he made it a point to pick up gossip. But he was careful with his information; he didn’t go spreading it around for all to hear, and he made it a point to verify his information before he passed it on. Anketam respected the old man. He was the only one in the village who called him “Ank,” outside of Memi.
“Do you think The Chief will give her to Kevenoe?” he asked.
Blejjo nodded. “Looks like it. He thinks a great deal of Kevenoe.”
“No reason why he shouldn’t,” said Anketam. “Kevenoe’s a good man.”
“Oh, I know that,” said the old man. “But Basom won’t like it at all. And I don’t think Zillia will, either.”
“That’s the way things happen,” said Anketam. “A man can’t expect to go through life having everything his own way. There’s other girls around for Basom. If he can’t have the prettiest, he’ll have to be satisfied with someone else.” He chuckled. “That’s why I picked Memi. She’s not beautiful and never was, but she’s a wonderful wife.”
“That’s so,” said Blejjo. “A wise man is one who only wants what he knows he can have. Right now”--he took off his hat and wiped his bald head--”all I want is a dip in that river.”
“Swim first and then fish?”
“I think so, don’t you? Basom was right about this hot sun.”
“I’ll go along with you,” agreed Anketam.
They made their way to the river, to the shallow place at the bend where everyone swam. There were a dozen and more kids there, having a great time in the slow moving water, and several of the older people soaking themselves and keeping an eye on the kids to make sure they didn’t wander out to where the water was deep and the current swift.
Anketam and Blejjo took off their clothes and cooled themselves in the water for a good half hour before they dressed again and went on upriver to a spot where Blejjo swore the fish were biting.
They were. In the next four hours, the two men had caught six fish apiece, and Blejjo was trying for his seventh. Here, near the river, there was a slight breeze, and it was fairly cool beneath the overhanging branches of the closely bunched trees.
Blejjo had spotted a big, red-and-yellow striped beauty loafing quietly in a back eddy, and he was lowering his hook gently to a point just in front of the fish when both men heard the voice calling.
“Anketam! Anketam! Blejjo! Where you at?”
Blejjo went on with his careful work, knowing that Anketam would take care of whatever it was.
Anketam recognized the voice. He stood up and called: “Over here, Basom! What’s the trouble?”
A minute later, Basom came running through the trees, his feet crashing through the underbrush.
Blejjo sat up abruptly, an angry look on his face. “Basom, you scared my fish away.”
“Fish, nothing,” said Basom. “I ran all the way here to tell you!” He was grinning widely and panting for breath at the same time.
“You suddenly got an awful lot of energy,” Blejjo said sourly.
“What happened?” Anketam asked.
“The invasion!” Basom said between breaths. “Kevenoe himself came down to tell us! They’ve started the invasion! The war’s on!”
“Than what are you looking so happy about?” Anketam snapped.
“That’s what I came to tell you.” Basom’s grin didn’t fade in the least. “They landed up in the Frozen Country, where our missiles couldn’t get ‘em, according to Kevenoe. Then they started marching down on one of the big towns. Tens of thousands of ‘em! And we whipped ‘em! Our army cut ‘em to pieces and sent ‘em running back to their base! We won! We won!”
The battle had been won, but the war wasn’t won yet. The invaders had managed to establish a good-sized base up in the Frozen Country. They’d sneaked their ships in and had put up a defensive system that stopped any high-speed missiles. Not that Xedii had many missiles. Xedii was an agricultural planet; most manufactured articles were imported. It had never occurred to the government of Xedii that there would be any real need for implements of war.
The invaders seemed to be limiting their use of weapons, too. They wanted to control the planet, not destroy it. Through the summer and into the autumn, Anketam listened to the news as it filtered down from the battlegrounds. There were skirmishes here and there, but nothing decisive. Xedii seemed to be holding her own against the invaders.
After the first news of the big victory, things settled back pretty much to normal.
The harvest was good that year, but after the leaves were shredded and dried, they went into storage warehouses. The invaders had set up a patrol system around Xedii which prevented the slow cargo ships from taking off or landing. A few adventurous space officers managed to get a ship out now and then, but those few flights could hardly be called regular trade shipments.
The cool of winter had come when Chief Samas did something he had never done before. He called all the men in the barony to assemble before the main gate of the castle enclosure. He had a speech to make.
For the first time, Anketam felt a touch of apprehension. He got his crew together, and they walked to the castle in silence, wondering what it was that The Chief had to say.
All the men of the barony, except those who couldn’t be spared from their jobs, were assembled in front of Chief Samas’ baronial castle.
The castle itself was not a single building. Inside the four-foot-high thorn hedge that surrounded the two-acre area, there were a dozen buildings of hard, irridescent plastic shining in the sun. They all looked soft and pleasant and comfortable. Even the thorn hedge, filled as it was by the lacy leaves that concealed the hard, sharp thorns, looked soft and inviting.
Anketam listened to the soft murmur of whispered conversation from the men around him. They stood quietly outside the main gate that led into the castle area, waiting for The Chief to appear, and wondering among themselves what it was that The Chief had to say.
“You think the invaders have won?”
Anketam recognized the hoarse whisper from the man behind him. He turned to face the dark, squat, hard-looking man who had spoken. “It couldn’t be, Jacovik. It couldn’t be.”
The other supervisor looked down at his big, knuckle-scarred hands instead of looking at Anketam. He was not a handsome man, Jacovik; his great, beaklike nose was canted to one side from a break that had come in his teens; his left eye was squinted almost closed by the scar tissue that surrounded it, and the right only looked better by comparison. His eyebrows, his beard, and the fringe of hair that outlined his bald head made an incongruous pale yellow pattern against the sunburnt darkness of his face. In his youth, Jacovik had been almost pathologically devoted to boxing--even to the point of picking fights with others in his village for no reason at all, except to fight. Twice, he had been brought up before The Chief’s court because of the severe beating he had given to men bigger than he, and he had finally killed a man with his fists.
Chief Samas had given him Special Punishment for that, and a final warning that the next fight would be punished by death.
Anketam didn’t know whether it was that threat, or the emotional reaction Jacovik had suffered from killing a man, or simply that he had had some sense beaten into his head, but from that moment on Jacovik was a different man. He had changed from a thug into a determined, ambitious man. In twenty-two years, he had not used his fists except to discipline one of his crew, and that had only happened four times that Anketam knew of. Jacovik had shown that he had ability as well as strength, that he could control men by words as well as by force, and The Chief had made him a supervisor. He had proved himself worthy of the job; next to Anketam, he was the best supervisor in the barony.