The Skull

by

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic, .

Desc: Science Fiction Story: Conger agreed to kill a stranger he had never seen. He wasn't concerned about getting the wrong man. He knew what the man looked like. There was no way he could make a mistake about his target's identity -- he had the man's skull under his shoulder.

“What is this opportunity?” Conger asked. “Go on. I’m interested.”

The room was silent; all faces were fixed on Conger--still in the drab prison uniform. The Speaker leaned forward slowly.

“Before you went to prison your trading business was paying well--all illegal--all very profitable. Now you have nothing, except the prospect of another six years in a cell.”

Conger scowled.

“There is a certain situation, very important to this Council, that requires your peculiar abilities. Also, it is a situation you might find interesting. You were a hunter, were you not? You’ve done a great deal of trapping, hiding in the bushes, waiting at night for the game? I imagine hunting must be a source of satisfaction to you, the chase, the stalking--”

Conger sighed. His lips twisted. “All right,” he said. “Leave that out. Get to the point. Who do you want me to kill?”

The Speaker smiled. “All in proper sequence,” he said softly.


The car slid to a stop. It was night; there was no light anywhere along the street. Conger looked out. “Where are we? What is this place?”

The hand of the guard pressed into his arm. “Come. Through that door.”

Conger stepped down, onto the damp sidewalk. The guard came swiftly after him, and then the Speaker. Conger took a deep breath of the cold air. He studied the dim outline of the building rising up before them.

“I know this place. I’ve seen it before.” He squinted, his eyes growing accustomed to the dark. Suddenly he became alert. “This is--”

“Yes. The First Church.” The Speaker walked toward the steps. “We’re expected.”

“Expected? Here?

“Yes.” The Speaker mounted the stairs. “You know we’re not allowed in their Churches, especially with guns!” He stopped. Two armed soldiers loomed up ahead, one on each side.

“All right?” The Speaker looked up at them. They nodded. The door of the Church was open. Conger could see other soldiers inside, standing about, young soldiers with large eyes, gazing at the ikons and holy images.

“I see,” he said.

“It was necessary,” the Speaker said. “As you know, we have been singularly unfortunate in the past in our relations with the First Church.”

“This won’t help.”

“But it’s worth it. You will see.”


They passed through the hall and into the main chamber where the altar piece was, and the kneeling places. The Speaker scarcely glanced at the altar as they passed by. He pushed open a small side door and beckoned Conger through.

“In here. We have to hurry. The faithful will be flocking in soon.”

Conger entered, blinking. They were in a small chamber, low-ceilinged, with dark panels of old wood. There was a smell of ashes and smoldering spices in the room. He sniffed. “What’s that? The smell.”

“Cups on the wall. I don’t know.” The Speaker crossed impatiently to the far side. “According to our information, it is hidden here by this--”

Conger looked around the room. He saw books and papers, holy signs and images. A strange low shiver went through him.

“Does my job involve anyone of the Church? If it does--”

The Speaker turned, astonished. “Can it be that you believe in the Founder? Is it possible, a hunter, a killer--”

“No. Of course not. All their business about resignation to death, non-violence--”

“What is it, then?”

Conger shrugged. “I’ve been taught not to mix with such as these. They have strange abilities. And you can’t reason with them.”

The Speaker studied Conger thoughtfully. “You have the wrong idea. It is no one here that we have in mind. We’ve found that killing them only tends to increase their numbers.”

“Then why come here? Let’s leave.”

“No. We came for something important. Something you will need to identify your man. Without it you won’t be able to find him.” A trace of a smile crossed the Speaker’s face. “We don’t want you to kill the wrong person. It’s too important.”

“I don’t make mistakes.” Conger’s chest rose. “Listen, Speaker--”

“This is an unusual situation,” the Speaker said. “You see, the person you are after--the person that we are sending you to find--is known only by certain objects here. They are the only traces, the only means of identification. Without them--”

“What are they?”

He came toward the Speaker. The Speaker moved to one side. “Look,” he said. He drew a sliding wall away, showing a dark square hole. “In there.”

Conger squatted down, staring in. He frowned. “A skull! A skeleton!”

“The man you are after has been dead for two centuries,” the Speaker said. “This is all that remains of him. And this is all you have with which to find him.”

For a long time Conger said nothing. He stared down at the bones, dimly visible in the recess of the wall. How could a man dead centuries be killed? How could he be stalked, brought down?

Conger was a hunter, a man who had lived as he pleased, where he pleased. He had kept himself alive by trading, bringing furs and pelts in from the Provinces on his own ship, riding at high speed, slipping through the customs line around Earth.

He had hunted in the great mountains of the moon. He had stalked through empty Martian cities. He had explored--

The Speaker said, “Soldier, take these objects and have them carried to the car. Don’t lose any part of them.”

The soldier went into the cupboard, reaching gingerly, squatting on his heels.

“It is my hope,” the Speaker continued softly, to Conger, “that you will demonstrate your loyalty to us, now. There are always ways for citizens to restore themselves, to show their devotion to their society. For you I think this would be a very good chance. I seriously doubt that a better one will come. And for your efforts there will be quite a restitution, of course.”

The two men looked at each other; Conger, thin, unkempt, the Speaker immaculate in his uniform.

“I understand you,” Conger said. “I mean, I understand this part, about the chance. But how can a man who has been dead two centuries be--”

“I’ll explain later,” the Speaker said. “Right now we have to hurry!” The soldier had gone out with the bones, wrapped in a blanket held carefully in his arms. The Speaker walked to the door. “Come. They’ve already discovered that we’ve broken in here, and they’ll be coming at any moment.”

They hurried down the damp steps to the waiting car. A second later the driver lifted the car up into the air, above the house-tops.


The Speaker settled back in the seat.

“The First Church has an interesting past,” he said. “I suppose you are familiar with it, but I’d like to speak of a few points that are of relevancy to us.

“It was in the twentieth century that the Movement began--during one of the periodic wars. The Movement developed rapidly, feeding on the general sense of futility, the realization that each war was breeding greater war, with no end in sight. The Movement posed a simple answer to the problem: Without military preparations--weapons--there could be no war. And without machinery and complex scientific technocracy there could be no weapons.

“The Movement preached that you couldn’t stop war by planning for it. They preached that man was losing to his machinery and science, that it was getting away from him, pushing him into greater and greater wars. Down with society, they shouted. Down with factories and science! A few more wars and there wouldn’t be much left of the world.

“The Founder was an obscure person from a small town in the American Middle West. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that one day he appeared, preaching a doctrine of non-violence, non-resistance; no fighting, no paying taxes for guns, no research except for medicine. Live out your life quietly, tending your garden, staying out of public affairs; mind your own business. Be obscure, unknown, poor. Give away most of your possessions, leave the city. At least that was what developed from what he told the people.”

The car dropped down and landed on a roof.

“The Founder preached this doctrine, or the germ of it; there’s no telling how much the faithful have added themselves. The local authorities picked him up at once, of course. Apparently they were convinced that he meant it; he was never released. He was put to death, and his body buried secretly. It seemed that the cult was finished.”

The Speaker smiled. “Unfortunately, some of his disciples reported seeing him after the date of his death. The rumor spread; he had conquered death, he was divine. It took hold, grew. And here we are today, with a First Church, obstructing all social progress, destroying society, sowing the seeds of anarchy--”

“But the wars,” Conger said. “About them?”

“The wars? Well, there were no more wars. It must be acknowledged that the elimination of war was the direct result of non-violence practiced on a general scale. But we can take a more objective view of war today. What was so terrible about it? War had a profound selective value, perfectly in accord with the teachings of Darwin and Mendel and others. Without war the mass of useless, incompetent mankind, without training or intelligence, is permitted to grow and expand unchecked. War acted to reduce their numbers; like storms and earthquakes and droughts, it was nature’s way of eliminating the unfit.

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