The Guardians

by Irving E.Cox

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: It's not always "The Truth shall set you free!" Sometimes it's "Want of the Truth shall drive you to escape!" And that can be dangerous!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Mryna Brill intended to ride the god-car above the rain mist. For a long time she had not believed in the taboos or the Earth-god. She no longer believed she lived on Earth. This paradise of green-floored forests and running brooks was something called Rythar.

Six years ago, when Mryna was fourteen, she first discovered the truth. She asked a question and the Earth-god ignored it. A simple question, really: What is above the rain mist? God could have told her. Every day he answered technical questions that were far more difficult. Instead, he repeated the familiar taboo about avoiding the Old Village because of the Sickness.

And consequently Mryna, being female, went to the Old Village. There was nothing really unusual about that. All the kids went through the ruins from time to time. They had worked out a sort of charm that made it all right. They ran past the burned out shells of the old houses and they kept their eyes shaded to ward off the Sickness.

But even at fourteen Mryna had outgrown charms and she didn’t believe in the Sickness. She had once asked the Earth-god what sickness meant, and the screen in the answer house had given her a very detailed answer. Mryna knew that none of the hundred girls and thirty boys inhabiting Rythar had ever been sick. That, like the taboo of the Old Village, she considered a childish superstition.

The Old Village wasn’t large--three parallel roads, a mile long, lined with the charred ruins of prefabs, which were exactly like the cottages where the kids lived. It was nothing to inspire either fear or legend. The village had burned a long time ago; the grass from the forest had grown a green mantle over the skeletal walls.

For weeks Mryna poked through the ruins before she found anything of significance--a few, scorched pages of a printed pamphlet buried deep in the black earth. The paper excited her tremendously. It was different from the film books photographed in the answer house. She had never touched anything like it; and it seemed wonderful stuff.

She read the pamphlet eagerly. It was part of a promotional advertisement of a world called Rythar, “the jewel of the Sirian Solar System.”

The description made it obvious that Rythar was the green paradise where Mryna lived--the place she had been taught to call Earth. And the pamphlet had been addressed to “Earthmen everywhere.”

Mryna made her second find when she was fifteen, a textbook in astronomy. For the first time in her life she read about the spinning dust of the universe lying beyond the eternal rain mist that hid her world.

The solid, stable Earth of her childhood was solid and stable no longer, but a sphere turning through a black void. Nor was it properly called Earth, but a planet named Rythar. The adjustment Mryna had to make was shattering; she lost faith in everything she believed.

Yet the clock-work logic of astronomy appealed to her orderly mind. It explained why the rain mist glowed with light during the day and turned dark at night. Mryna had never seen a clear sky. She had no visual data to tie her new concept to.

For six years she kept the secret. She hid the papers and the astronomy text which she found in the Old Village. Later, after the metal men came, she destroyed everything so none of the other women would know the Earth-god was a man.

At first she kept the secret because she was afraid. For some reason the man who played at being god wanted the kids to believe Rythar was Earth, the totality of the universe enveloped in a cloud of mist. She knew that because she once asked god what a planet was. The face on the screen in the answer house became frigid with anger--or was it fear?--and the Earth-god said:

“The word means nothing.”

But late that night a very large god-car brought six metal men down through the rain mist. They were huge, jointed things that clanked when they walked. Four of them used weapons to herd the kids together in their small settlement. The two others went to the Old Village and blasted the ruins with high explosives.

Vaguely Mryna remembered that the metal men had been there before, when the kids were still very small. They had built the new settlement and they had brought food. They lived with the children for a long time, she thought--but the memory was hazy.

As the years passed, Mryna’s fear retreated and only one thing became important: she knew the Earth-god was a man. On the fertile soil of Rythar there were one hundred women and thirty men. All the boys had taken mates before they reached seventeen. Seventy girls were left unmarried, with no prospect of ever having husbands. A score or more became second wives in polygamous homes, but plural marriage had no appeal for Mryna. She was firmly determined to possess a man of her own. And why shouldn’t it be the Earth-god?

As her first step toward escape, Mryna volunteered for duty in the answer house. For as long as she could remember, the answer house had stood on a knoll some distance beyond the new settlement. It was a square, one-room building, housing a speaking box, a glass screen and a console of transmission machinery. Anyone in the settlement could contact god and request information or special equipment.

God went out of his way to deluge them with information. The simplest question produced voluminous data, transmitted over the screen and photographed on reels of film. Someone had to be in the answer house to handle the photography. The work was not hard, but it was monotonous. Most of the kids preferred to farm the fields or dig the sacrificial ore.

A request for equipment was granted just as promptly. Tools, machines, seeds, fertilizers, packaged buildings, games, clothing--everything came in a god-car. It was a large cylinder which hissed down from the rain mist on a pillar of fire. The landing site was a flat, charred field near the answer house. Unless the equipment was unusually heavy, the attendant stationed in the house was expected to unload the god-car and pile aboard the sacrifice ores mined on Rythar.

God asked two things from the settlement: the pieces of unusually heavy metal which they dug from the hills, and tiny vials of soil. In an hour’s time they could mine enough ore to fill the compartment of a god-car, and god never complained if they sometimes sent the cylinder back empty. But he fussed mightily over the small vials of Earth. He gave very explicit directions as to where they were to take the samples, and the place was never the same. Sometimes they had to travel miles from the settlement to satisfy that inexplicable whim.

For two weeks Mryna patiently ran off the endless films of new books and unloaded the god-car when it came. She examined the interior of the cylinder carefully and she weighed every possible risk. The compartment was very small, but she concluded that she would be safe.

And so she made her decision. Tense and tight-lipped Mryna Brill slipped aboard the god-car. She sealed the lock door, which automatically fired the launching tubes. After that there was no turning back.

The dark compartment shook in a thunder of sound. The weight of the escape speed tore at her body, pulling her tight against the confining walls. She lost consciousness until the pressure lessened.

The metal walls became hot but the space was too confining for her to avoid contact entirely. Four narrow light tubes came on, with a dull, red glow, and suddenly a gelatinous liquid emptied out of ceiling vents. The fluid sprayed every exposed surface in the cubicle, draining through the shipment of sacrifice ores at Mryna’s feet. It had a choking, antiseptic odor; it stung Mryna’s face and inflamed her eyes.

Worse still, as the liquid soaked into her clothing, it disintegrated the fiber, tearing away the cloth in long strips which slowly dissolved in the liquid on the floor. Before the antiseptic spray ceased, Mryna was helplessly naked. Even her black boots had not survived.

The red lights went out and Mryna was imprisoned again in the crushing darkness. A terror of the taboos she had defied swept her mind. She began to scream, but the sound was lost in the roar of the motors.

Suddenly it was over. The god-car lurched into something hard. Mryna was thrown against the ceiling--and she hung there, weightless. The pieces of sacrifice ore were floating in the darkness just as she was. The motors cut out and the lock door swung open.

Mryna saw a circular room, brightly lighted with a glaring, blue light. The nature of her fear changed. This was the house of the Earth-god, but she could not let him find her naked.

She tried to run into the circular room. She found that the slightest exertion of her muscles sent her spinning through the air. She could not get her feet on the floor. There was no down and no up in that room. She collided painfully with the metal wall and she snatched at a light bracket to keep herself from bouncing free in the empty air again.

The god-car had landed against what was either the ceiling or the floor of the circular room. Mryna had no way of making a differentiation. Eight brightly lighted corridors opened into the side walls. Mryna heard footsteps moving toward her down one of the corridors; she pulled herself blindly into another. As she went farther from the circular room, a vague sense of gravity returned. At the end of the corridor she was able to stand on her feet again, although she still had to walk very carefully. Any sudden movement sent her soaring in a graceful leap that banged her head against the ceiling.

Cautiously she opened a thick, metal door into another hall--and she stood transfixed, looking through a mica wall at the emptiness of space pinpointed with its billions of stars. This was the reality of the charts she had seen in the astronomy text: that knowledge alone saved her sanity. She had believed it when the proof lay hidden above the rain mist; she must believe it now.

From where she stood, she was able to see the place where the god-car had brought her--like a vast cartwheel spinning in the void. The god-car was clamped against the hub, from which eight corridors radiated outward like wheel spokes toward the rim. Far below the gigantic wheel Mryna saw the sphere of Rythar, invisible behind its shroud of glowing mist.

She moved along the rim corridor, past the mica wall, until she came to a door that stood open. The room beyond was a sleeping compartment and it was empty. She searched it for clothing, and found nothing. She went through four more dormitory rooms before she came upon anything she could use--brief shorts, clearly made for a man, and a loose, white tunic. It wasn’t suitable; it wasn’t the way she wanted to be dressed when she faced him. But it had to do.

Mryna was pawing through a footlocker looking for boots when she heard a hesitant step behind her. She whirled and saw a small, stooped, white-haired man, naked except for trunks like the ones she was wearing. The wrinkled skin on his wasted chest was burned brown by the hot glare of the sun. Thick-lensed glasses hung from a chain around his neck.

“My dear young lady,” he said in a tired voice, “this is a men’s ward!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know--”

“You must be a new patient.” He fumbled for his glasses. Instinctively she knew she shouldn’t let him see her clearly enough to identify her as a stranger. She shoved past him, knocking the glasses from his hand.

“I’d better find my own--ward.” Mryna didn’t know the word, but she supposed it meant some sort of sleeping chamber.

The old man said chattily, “I hadn’t heard they were bringing in any new patients today.”

She was in the corridor by that time. He reached for her hand. “I’ll see you in the sunroom?” It was a timid, hopeful question. “And you’ll tell me all the news--everything they’re doing back on Earth. I haven’t been home for almost a year.”

She fled down the hall. When she heard voices ahead of her, she pulled back a door and slid into another room--a storeroom piled with cases of medicines. Behind the cartons she thought she would be safe.

This wasn’t what she had expected. Mryna thought there might be one man living in a kind of prefab somehow suspended above the rain mist. But there were obviously others up here; she didn’t know how many. And the old man frightened her--more than the dazzling sight of the heavens visible through the mica wall. Mryna had never seen physical age before. No one on Rythar was older than she was herself--a sturdy, healthy, lusty twenty. The old man’s infirmity disgusted her; for the first time in her life she was conscious of the slow decay of death.

The door of the supply room slid open. Mryna crouched low behind the cartons, but she was able to see the man and the woman who had entered the room. A woman--here? Mryna hadn’t considered that possibility. Perhaps the Earth-god already had a mate.

The newcomers were dressed in crisp, white uniforms; the woman wore a starched, white hat. They carried a tray of small, glass cylinders from which metal needles projected. While the woman held the tray, the man drove the needles through the caps of small bottles and filled the cylinders with a bright-colored liquid.

“When are you leaving, Dick?” the woman asked.

“In about forty minutes. They’re sending an auto-pickup.”

“Oh, no!”

“Now don’t start worrying. They have got the bugs out of it by this time. The auto-pickups are entirely trustworthy.”

“Sure, that’s what the army says.”

“In theory they should be even more reliable than--”

“I wish you’d wait for the hospital shuttle.”

“And miss the chance to address Congress this year? We’ve worked too long for this; I don’t want to muff it now. We’ve all the statistical proof we need, even to convince those pinchpenny halfwits. During the past eight years we’ve handled more than a thousand cases up here. On Earth they were pronounced incurable; we’ve sent better than eighty per cent back in good health after an average stay of fourteen months.”

“No medical man has ever questioned the efficiency of cosmic radiation and a reduced atmospheric gravity, Dick.”

“It’s just our so-called statesmen, always yapping about the budget. But this time we have the cost problem licked, too. For a year and a half the ore they send up from Rythar has paid for our entire operation.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“We’ve kept it under wraps, so the politicians wouldn’t cut our appropriations.”

Their glass tubes were full, and they turned toward the door. “It isn’t right,” the woman persisted, “for them not to send a piloted shuttle after you, Dick. It isn’t dignified. You’re our assistant medical director and--”

Her words were cut off as the door slid shut behind them. Mryna tried to fit this new information into what she already knew--or thought she knew--about the Earth-god. It didn’t add up to a pretty picture. She had once asked for a definition of illness, and it was apparent to her that this place which they called the Guardian Wheel was an expensive hospital for Earthmen. It was paid for by the sacrificial ores mined on Rythar. In a sense, Rythar was being enslaved and exploited by Earth. True, it was not difficult to dig out the ore, but Mryna resented the fact that the kids on Rythar had not been told the truth. She had long ago lost her awe of the man called god; now she lost her respect as well.

Mryna was glad she had not seen him, glad no one knew she was aboard the Guardian Wheel. She would return to Rythar. After she told the others what she knew, Rythar would send up no more sacrifice ores. Let the Earthmen come down and mine it for themselves!

Very cautiously she pulled the door open. The rim corridor was empty. She moved toward one of the intersecting corridors. When she heard footsteps, she hid in another dormitory room.

This was different from the others. It showed more evidence of permanent occupation. She guessed it was a dormitory for the people who took care of the sick. Pictures were fastened to the curved, metal walls. Personal articles cluttered the shelves hung beside the bunks. On a writing desk she saw a number of typed reports. Five freshly laundered uniforms, identical to the one she had lost in the antiseptic wash, hung on a rack behind the door. Mryna stripped off the makeshift she was wearing and put on one of the uniforms; she found boots under the desk. When she was dressed, she stood admiring herself in the polished surface of the metal door.

She was a handsome woman, and she was very conscious of that. Her face was tanned by the mist-filtered sunlight of Rythar; her lips were red and sensuous; her long, platinum-colored hair fell to her shoulders. She compared herself to the small, hard-faced female she had seen in the supply room. Was that a typical Earthwoman? Mryna’s lips curled in a scornful smile. Let the gods come down to Rythar, then, and discover what a real female was like in the lush, green, Rytharian paradise.

Mryna went to the desk and glanced at the typed reports. They had been written by a man who signed himself “Commander in Charge, Guardian Wheel,” and they were addressed to the Congress of the world government. One typed document was a supply inventory; a second, still unfinished, was a budget report. (You won’t show a profit next time, Mryna thought vindictively, when we stop sending you the sacrifice ore.) Another report dealt with Rythar, and Mryna read it with more interest.

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