"Whew!... There's rotting pieces of 'em scattered about. They died just like we would have."
The foragers hesitated in respect to the dead, but finally decided to probe the wreck for valuable materials. They moved among the wreckage, picking up unbloodied things and examining them.
"Look at this!" cried one.... The others gathered. "What is it?"
"It's some kind of statue made of shiny metal. Its head came off."
One of them knelt and gingerly picked up the metal head. Cables dang- led from its severed neck. Some were still connected to its dented trunk. They viewed the strange object with dread.
"It almost looks like a man ... but it's different."
The head's eyes opened and looked at the foragers.
They screamed and dropped it and ran back. "It's alive! How can that be?---it's a metal thing."
The head stared at the sky, then rolled its glassy eyes around to sur- vey its surroundings. It saw the foragers cowering, nearby.
"Come to me."
Amazingly, it spoke in the language of the People. The foragers looked to each other for bravery, but found none. This ...thing... was well beyond their ken.
"Bless you, my People. Come forth and speak with me," it soothed.
Cautiously, they crept back and stared down at the head. "What are you?" they asked. "You talk like a man."
The head stared up at them unblinkingly for some seconds, as if it were thinking about this question. "I am called Baal. I am God come down from heaven to guide you. I and my scholarly ...friend... were being transported by the imperialists to the homeland of the People. The imperialists---and unfortunately my friend---died when their vehicle stopped flying."
The foragers gasped at this revelation. They guessed it must be true. The head wasn't of flesh and bone; it must contain a deity. And they did need divine guidance; that was for certain. Their traditional gods had failed them.
"Take me to a place of repose," God ordered them.
With utmost care, they picked up God's parts and conveyed Him to the Cave of the Winds, where He was installed in as much splendor and majesty as the impoverished People could manage.
Viewed from a parking orbit, Papaver was a pleasing mosaic of green and brown landforms overruling blue ocean waters, all splotched with fluffy, white clouds. It was a drier analog of humankind's terran homeworld. Earth itself was a distant blueworld most of its descen- dants knew only as a pretty picture sometimes displayed in televideo advertisements.
But Papaver was not cataloged in galactic ephemerides as anybody's homeworld. It was simply listed as one of His Majesty's imperial agricultural planets---No. 37. It was no source of pride for the Crown.
Papaver was where the imperial opium crop was grown.... Because the product of its flowers was regarded by many imperial subjects as some- thing undesirable, the crop was tended by prisoners employed by a con- tractor, the ruthless and efficient Aggex, Ltd. This blueworld of op- portunistically-arranged fields was known, popularly, as...
Carlo added, sarcastically, "Our next place of exile. I can hardly wait to get down there and ride among the flowers." He made a face at the port. Carlo, though still in his twenties, had become worldweary.
Wulf continued staring at the unrolling sights, below. His fellow trooper had put the planet in his usual concise nutshell: A Temporary Place of Exile. A place where they would do what needed doing, then leave to go someplace else and do the same.
Dragoons had no homeworld. They surrendered that luxury when they enlisted, put on their shiny boots, and mounted up.
"It's got to be better than the last place they sent us," replied Wulf, hopefully. He briefly recalled the torrid rainforest world they'd jumped here from.
"Pluvia." supplied Carlo. "I still have insect-bite welts from that stinking spongeworld that haven't healed yet, and some of them are between me and my saddle." He rubbed the seat of his loose jumpsuit. "They come into play as soon as I put on my spants." Spants were an essential part of a dragoon's working uniform. They fitted tightly, but the fabric was designed to adjust nicely to saddle stresses.
Wulf turned away from the port and its piano-roll scenery. "I think I'll check on my mount."
"You checked on her, last shift, pal. She's still okay, I figure. Besides, you don't have time. We'll be dropping out of orbit any minute now. Better get into your 'straint." He moved toward his.
The ENGAGE RESTRAINT horn sounded raucously, as if on cue.
"Alright you 'goons! Hit 'em!" hollered the Troop Sergeant-Major. Dragoons floating about the large compartment pushed away from the ports and recreation tables and over to the centered restraints. No grumbling was heard; they were anxious to hit the surface.
Carlo, as usual, was correct. He'd made corporal quickly, and stood ready to move up to Subtroop Sergeant as soon as one of the current ones was maimed or killed by the dangerous dissidents they pursued.
A celestial firework blazed in the night sky.
"Look, Gramp---a shooting star!"
Mima's elderly grandfather stared at the fading streak without enthu- siasm, not because he was old and tired, but because he knew what it really was.
"It's a ship, Mima.... But make a wish, anyway."
The dark-skinned adolescent girl, who looked like a ragamuffin from the deepest slums of the Imperial capital, had second thoughts about what she'd seen because she'd now learned the truth of it. But she closed her eyes and made her wish.
"What did you wish for, daughter?" asked Gramp, who was known in the tribe as Raffo The Brewer. His own dark skin was deeply-wrinkled, his face marked with wisdom lines. His peppercorn-hair had thinned to fringes.
Mima's parents had been killed, so he raised her in their stead. He was as poorly-clad as his granddaughter. Clothing material was hard to come by, now that the People had lost their fields of cotton and flax. Wool from mountain-sheep was available, but it was summer, and such garments were too uncomfortable to wear in the heat.`
Mima knew you weren't supposed to tell your star-wish, but she held hers away from her a little because it was about something scary. She guessed Gramp had the same wish, anyway.
"I wish... I wish that ship isn't bringing any dragoons."
Her grandfather sadly grunted his agreement.
Wulf and his fellow troopers were arrayed, side-by-side, in a long single line. In their gold-trimmed green coats and spants, in their shiny steel helmets and high-topped black boots, the men and women atop their mounts seemed quite enough to intimidate any world's backward, troublesome natives.
"Sir! The Third Troop of His Majesty's Imperial Mounted Police---The Royal Dragoons---begs service with Your Excellency's cause!"
The Troop Commander shouted his ritual offering to the fat, medal-bedecked Governor, who stood sweating on the canopied platform with the other local dignitaries.
"Thank you, Commander. Welcome to His Majesty's Agricultural Planet," replied the Governor, omitting its low-status number. His gravelly, high-pitched voice was softened and deepened by complex circuitry and sent booming out over the small crowd through loudspeakers.
"Forward... ho!" shouted the Troop Sgt. Major, and his dragoons turn- ed and moved forward onto the athletic field to perform their intricate equitational maneuvers.... The coach of the overseers' soccer team watched anxiously as the troopers' mounts high-stepped back-and-forth over his carefully-tended grass.
He needn't have worried about damage, though. These mounts were not the sharp-shod horses of yore. They were heptas: pad-footed, lithe animals which looked like tall, furry cats. Genetically-engineered hybrids, heptas had more endurance than equines, and were relatively placid and unspookable. They ran swiftly and quietly over difficult ground and through heavily-vegetated terrain. They pursued grunts with nearly the eagerness of hunting dogs, but were easily controlled by their human riders. They had been bred over many years to be the most ideal of cavalry mounts.
Their name, which meant "seven" in the ancient language of scientific roots, referred to some microscopic genetic characteristic. They had four legs and long tails for balance. Despite their feline appearance, their wide feet had no claws and their teeth were adapted for grazing and browsing a wide variety of vegetation. Although they pursued their quarry eagerly, they never attacked.... Their riders did that.
With their shorter operational lances, the dragoons dispatched those who were unluckily afoot and unarmed. With their short radiation-carbines "armbines" strapped onto their left arms, they defended themselves from those who fired at them. With their bravery, dragoons brought the Emperor's enemies to heel.
On operations, they wore a functional black helmet in which there were an adjustable, polarized sunshade; electrobinocular lenses; a wide-sight infrared and image-intensifier visor for nighttime viewing; and a command-radio transceiver for intercommunication.... A decapitating explosive charge was also installed---to be used if they found themselves at the awful prospect of surrender. They were not ordered to employ this last device, but the traditions of the troop required it. Past heroes had destroyed their helmets and themselves to prevent both from falling into the hands of their enemies.
Wulf was determined to end his life, rather than dishonor his troop. His cynical pal, Carlo, was less certain about his intentions in that regard, but concealed his uncertainty from the other troopers.
As the Troop maneuvered on the grass to the delight of the assembled, storm clouds formed on the horizon, and it seemed the poppy fields would receive a welcome, natural irrigation. They were a few weeks short of blooming and setting the seedpods which were scored to bring forth the hardening liquid exudate known locally as as "the raw."
"They sure do look impressive," commented Mima to her grandfather.
"Impressive and deadly. We'll have to use new tactics against these pretty imperial thugs and their snarling catmounts." He handed his electrooptical binoculars to Mima. They'd been taken from a dead imperialist overseer. "Here. Get a closer look, girl. Look at those our boys will have to kill---to escape being killed."
She readjusted the setting from that of her grandfather's farsighted- ness. Gramp was an old man, but he'd fought the imperialists well, and had slain some of them in his time. God now taught that indis- criminate killing was wrong.
"They look like an entertainment troupe from the capital, come to raise the spirits of the poppyslaves."
"Nothing anyone does will raise the spirits of the fieldhands, Mima. They're a whipped bunch, just like the fieldguards and the bumbling local constabulary."
"The fieldguards will have to stay awake now these troopers are riding around in the night. That's when we'll see 'em, I guess."
"Aye, girl. Those dragoons will seek us out in the dark of night to try and stop us from doing the holy work we've been set to."
A loud crack of thunder signaled the imminent arrival of a downpour. The sky was becoming a low ceiling of dark clouds which sent both shadows and the cautious scurrying for shelter.
Mima took her eyes from the binocs to look at the swift, scudding clouds. "It seems almost like night now, Gramp."
"We'd better get under cover. It'll be raining soon."
Mima propped the binocs on a rock so she could steady the jiggling image of the prancing dragoons. The cheap instrument lacked the image motion compensation of more expensive models. Most of the People's tools were the simpler kind. Many had been stolen from the low-status imperialists who'd been sent to Papaver. Mima's folk were an adaptable sort, despite being aboriginals.
They now had an advantage other unfortunate aboriginals didn't have. They had their god, Baal.
"You go on ahead, Gramp. I want to stay and see how those fancy troop- ers behave when it gets wet 'n' windy."
Gramp smiled at his granddaughter's curiosity, and left her his umbrella of interwoven elephant-ear leaves. Baal had marked Mima out as a future medicine woman because of her perceptive intelligence. Gramp had to remind her of this occasionally, lest she drift into the orbit of the tribe's warriors.
Crowded together in the dark of the smelly warehouse, the heptas breathed stertoriously and shuffled nervously. Starry night was their daytime, and they were anxious to get on with their accustomed exercise. They'd become used to nighttime charges after grunts, and were uneasy at being penned-up in such a closed space. Their large eyes ill-served them here, and their keen noses smelled only each other and the sweating troopers.
Their riders had the advantage of infrared vision. Wulf and the other dragoons were dressed in their operational gear. They looked forward to this first sally against the Emperor's nocturnal enemies. In their visored helmets and heavy gloves, they seemed almost robotic.
"Easy girl." Wulf patted the neck of his mount. Dragoons used female heptas because they had almost as stamina as the males, but were much quieter and less likely to fight each other. The founders of the Imperial Mounted Police also felt that the troopers would feel more sympathy for their female mounts than they would for the crankier males. This had proved to be true.
"Easy... We'll be running, soon."
The dragoons were hidden in a warehouse next to an massive central poppyfield. Machinery and tools used in this field and the nearby satellite fields were stored here. Several days ago, much of the warehouse's contents had been quietly moved away in vans to make room for Wulf's subtroop. The rest of the Third Troop was working beyond the jagged horizon in other field complexes.
Tonight, they hoped to surprise the whacker party which had been active in this region. These organized aboriginals moved from field to field in random order, whacking off the growing tops of the poppies with their sickles before they could bloom and produce the valuable raw.
The abos had become more active during the current growing season. Early on, they had been driven up into the hills and mountains by the Emperor's military forces after they resisted the appropriation of their lands by Aggex for poppy cultivation. They'd refused to work the flower fields and had fled to a life of poverty and discomfort.
The local fieldguards and thinly-scattered constabulary had little success in dealing with the newly-organized abos, and had suffered an increased number of wounded and killed, as their foe had better armed themselves---often with captured weapons. Finally, Aggex had demanded that the Governor request the return of the military. But the imperial soldiers were heavily-engaged in a distant war. The Governor received instead the Royal Dragoons. He was pleased, nonetheless. The dragoons were more effective than the military draftees. Even though there were fewer of these police, they would do the job.
"Alright, you 'goons: listen up!" The Subtroop Sergeant broke the silence of the darkened warehouse. "A big whacker party is moving into this field from the hills. Stand by. We'll be moving out soon."
"I think those grunts want a fight with the new boys on the block," said Cpl. Carlo to those around him. "They're testing us."
"Maybe," whispered Wulf as the Sergeant continued.
"Remember the tactics we're using tonight: one third flanking to the left, another third to the right, and the rest straight at 'em. You know which group you're with. And don't forget, flankers: your job is to cut off retreat. You don't jump into the fray 'til you've done that..." He stopped to listen to his radio.
"They've moved out into the field. Go starlite!" The Sergeant ordered a switch to image-intensifier vision.... "Ready for charge!... "Use your armbines only if you're fired on," he added, unnecessarily. "And try to keep down damage to the imperial poppies."
This request was was met with snickering all around, as the troopers switched their visors. They knew that, in situations like this, the operative procedure was "To hell with the crops---get the grunts."
In a falsetto voice, Carlo said, "Please don't hurt the poppies, fellas. You know how the noble folk need their soothing syrup." Laughter erupted around him. Dragoons were traditionally recruited from the working classes, for whom opium use was illegal.
"Quiet in the ranks!" yelled the Sergeant, who chose to ignore the remark---for now.... That was the guy who wanted his job. He'd make a note for the record, and the Evaluation Board would deal with Cpl. Carlo's smart mouth later when he was up for promotion and feeling cocky.
Suddenly, the big doors of the warehouse began to roll back. The sum of starlight and the pale glow from Papaver's small moons splashed brightly into the interior. The men came to attention, and their mounts quivered in anticipation. The heptas knew the traditional orders almost as well as their riders---especially the final one.
"Hold... Hold..." cautioned the Sergeant. He wanted the whackers to move well into the fields, even though this meant more poppies would be destroyed before they had to retreat before his troopers.
Just when it seemed the slowly-moving doors would never fully open, they slammed loudly against their stops.
Tension mounted.... Nobody moved. Nobody breathed.
In the field, the whackers heard the warehouse doors open and stopped to squint in that direction, undecided whether to continue---or run.
As the bugler sounded the call, and the dragoons sprinted from the warehouse into night. The subtroop rushed down the utility dirt road in the center of the field, three abreast. When they reached the intersection with a crossroad, the flankers split from the party and moved to the left and right. The middlers continued straight-on until they had to leave the road and move into the bordering fields, crushing the green plants as they sped to their work.
Wulf bore right, Carlo left. They urged their mounts to flank speed, so they could get around behind the whackers and cut them off from their beloved foothills.
"Go, girl! Go!" shouted Wulf into his hepta's ears. Bussefala needed no urging, though. She was full into the chase and enjoying it.
"They're coming, Gramp!"
"Stay down, daughter. We're just here to watch."
They silently watched the choreographed charge of the dragoons. They saw the whackers rush from the field through the green plants they'd topped with their sickles.
"Flankers are coming around to trap our warriors."
"I see 'em.... Our people will play their parts well, tonight. Our boys in the ravines are ready to lure the careless in and grab 'em. They may be afraid of those lances, but they'll do their job."
Mima and Gramp watched the action from the palisaded rocks at the top of the foothills. They had a good view of the fields and of a nearby ravine. They saw the flanking troopers cut off the whackers still in the fields. And they also watched the People's snipers in the hills fire their stolen guns at the troopers. Their aim was not quite up to dragoon standards.
"The flankers are standing firm against our snipers," remarked Gramp. "They're a brave bunch. They're doing what they were ordered to do--- even if it means a shot in the back."
"There! One of 'em's taking the bait! He's going up the ravine after our runners." Mima was wild-eyed with excitement. Too wild-eyed, Gramp felt.
"Yes," he replied, calmly. "He'll be one of 'em to find Baal."
"I almost feel sorry for him. He's just a boy."
"He's an well-armed young man Mima." He smiled at her. "Besides, he's older than you by several years."
"Almost everybody is," she replied, as she peered at the lured trooper through Gramp's binoculars.
Gramp reflected on her truth.... There were fewer youths among the People these days. In their new hardship, many women chose not to bear children. The People were becoming older.
Down in the fields, they were also becoming fewer.
From side passages, Wulf could hear the voices of abos who lived here, but he couldn't see them. They were always out of sight. From some passages, he could hear the sounds of craftsmen. This great cavern could hold hundreds of people. And there were many points in it where the movement of enemies could easily be impeded with a convenient fall of rock.
Wulf felt badly that he'd allowed himself to be lured into this place. The abos he'd believed to be trapped in the narrow ravine rushed like the wind ahead of him over the rocky ground, while his mount stumbled and slowed. When his quarry ran into the cave, he did not hesitate to follow them.... That was his bigger mistake.
As soon as he had entered the cave's large opening, he'd seen that the passageway narrowed and curved to the left. He dismounted and used his armbine's targeting laser to light the increasing darkness enough for his starlite visor. He was so apprehensive he forgot to switch to infrared.... He moved forward to explore around the bend. He assured himself that he only wanted to get an idea of the cave's size so he could report on it to the Subtroop Sergeant---to justify his leaving the scene of the operation.... Ahead, he could see no one. The abos had fled from him far into the darkness of what was almost certainly a lengthy, interconnected cave system.
As he'd advanced beyond the narrow passageway into a wider chamber, a heavy net had been dropped on him, and abo warriors had jumped him from above and wrestled him to the floor of the cave. They had man- handled him expertly. He'd not been allowed a target for his weapon.
Now, he found himself in a large, empty underground room lighted by wall-mounted firebaskets. He could see that the place was a hub of passage. On all sides of the circular chamber were entrances to natural and carved-rock tunnels which extended farther into the cavern. It was here that a blindfold was wrapped around his helmet, and he was spun until he became dizzy and was unable to determine the direction in which he was taken.
Finally, after a long slog, his captors halted him in the center of a smaller chamber. He stood there: bound, blind, and helpless. He was too disciplined to move, yet. He awaited further developments, stoically. His nose itched in the dusty air, and he suppressed an oncoming sneeze.
"Remove the blindfold from his helmet."
The voice, resonating in the artfully-carved chamber, sounded deep and authoritative, but artificial. Was it a voice-disguise vox?... How could these primitive aboriginals have such technology?
As the rag over his eyes was lifted, he was blinded until his visor adjusted to the increased light. Then, he absorbed the nature of his surroundings in a well-trained instant.
"Behold Almighty Baal---God of the People!" cried one of his captors.
Wulf beheld Him.... And gasped in shock.
God was the head of a household robot mounted in a niche.
In the flickering light of a firebasket, the shiny metallic face of the disembodied robot seemed otherworldly and out-of-place. He spoke in the formal, uncontracted manner of his kind. He chose to address his captive's accusation frankly.... He had dismissed the guards.
"I was a gentleman's gentleman, trooper, and the only artificial lifeform on Papaver. My master, Dr. Edwin K. Rombinus, was a distinguished scholar of Papaverian aboriginal society. He taught Me the language of the People so that someday I might speak directly to the aboriginals. He was one of the few imperial subjects they respected before they took to the mountains. They erected a memorial marker at the place where his aircar crashed---and where I, their New God, came to them from the sky."
"So you're a gentleman butler-god. But I'm no turncoat. I won't help you destroy the Emperor's crops, if that's what you want from me."
"The Emperor's *opium* crop, you mean?... You know the harm the raw from those white flowers does to His Majesty's subjects, I assume? Even if you have no sympathy for the corrupt nobility, you must know that opium and its derivatives circulate illegally within the working classes---such as you are from, I am certain."
Wulf scowled. Baal was trying to make him seem guilty of something. "Opium's none of my business. I do what I'm ordered to do. I'm a professional policeman."
"Good... Then I order you to become acquainted with the society of the People. After you have starved with us, you may change your professional policeman's outlook."
"I doubt it. I'm..."
"Silence!" Baal's metallic face remained impassive as He shouted. He was incapable of human expressions and gestures. But He was determined to get what He wanted from His captive dragoon, and this was made manifest by His vox's amplitude.
The abo guards who had brought Wulf here reappeared, this time with a young abo girl. She was shabbily-dressed, but had about her an evident air of intelligence and confidence. She stared at the captive boldly with her dark eyes. Wulf guessed her to be about sixteen local years old. To him, she seemed aboriginal-plain, not imperially-pretty. "If I'm here long enough, girls like her will look a lot better."
"This is Mima. She speaks Universal: her parents were house-servants." Baal neglected to mention that they had been caught spying and were executed by the Sector Head Overseer, who then had much difficulty replacing them locally and had to send to the capital homeworld for new servants. "She will guide you within the People's society. With My providence, you will reorient yourself to a more realistic outlook. ...Mima...?"
Mima bowed her head to Baal. "I serve my God in all things."
"Take this trooper and make him sympathetic to the People so that he may desire to serve us and our righteous cause."
Wulf asked, irrelevantly, "What have you done with my mount?"
Baal was at the improbable point of becoming irritated with this imperious dragoon who refused Him even commonsense respect.
"I suppose you want Me to return your lance and carbine, also--- do you, trooper?"
"Why not. I might need 'em," grinned Wulf, in spite of his dark mood.
"Your concern for your hepta is touching. But you have no need of her now, and we do have a need for reliable pack animals. We will convert her to our needs. She will be the first of her kind to serve the People in atonement."
"Look, Baal, or whatever you call yourself..." began Wulf
"I have spoken!" replied God. "Remove him from My presence."
The abo guards grabbed Wulf and hustled him from the Holy Chamber. They were followed by Mima, who felt most gratified that God had chosen her for this challenging task.
The abos stripped him of his gear and outfitted him in the rough tunic and trousers they wore. They confiscated his helmet---but, oddly, they returned it to him after a careful examination. Wulf checked its transceiver. He found they had removed its microphone to prevent him from calling his subtroop.
He knew something about the helmet the People didn't. He knew that he didn't have to use the radio for his Troop to locate him.
Every morning, Mima arrived at the bachelor's dormitory where Wulf slept, watched carefully by a select group of curious, nonhostile aboriginal warriors. She guided him through the cave to observe the daily activities of her People. Although he received an occasional glare from an abo who had sharp memories of dealings with imperial functionaries, he was treated as God desired: politely, cautiously.
Despite his decent treatment, Wulf remained loyal to his Troop. He pretended an increasing sympathy with the aboriginal cause, but he continually sought an escape opportunity. Although, he was sometimes seemingly presented with such opportunities, he doubted he would be unable to leave the cave without being stopped.
Then, because of his good behavior, Mima began to take him outside for brief walks, first at night, then during daylight. They never ventured very far from one of the cave's many exits, and they were always accompanied by a guard carrying a hunting rifle stolen from some overseer. Wulf never saw his armbine again. He suspected the abos were taking it apart to try to see how it worked.
When he wasn't with Mima, Wulf was given simple work to occupy his time. Returning to the dormitory after supper, he promptly fell asleep and slept the sleep of the just until early morning when the day began again for him, regularly and monotonously.
Days became weeks. Several of these had passed when Mima suddenly announced, "Tomorrow, we'll watch a raid on the big field below the palisades. You'll be able to see one of your `operations' from our side."
"Oh?... I'd like to see that, Mima."
He'd lately become attracted to the younger girl, who treated him with kindness and courtesy. "Perhaps..." He put aside the thought. "If I succumb to her charms, I'll become one of them.... It's bad enough being a `possible deserter'; I want to be able to say that I resisted during my captivity---if I ever have the chance to say any- thing to the Troop Commander---and I don't want him to use a 'probe to discover I'm lying."
Wulf switched his helmet visor to binocular vision.... Jumping from the gray distance was the warehouse from which his subtroop had made its first charge into the poppy fields. The damage they and their quarry had done was made obvious by the trampled, dead plants at this end of the field where the action took place. "Are the troopers waiting there, now, to charge forth for my entertainment?"
"Where are your warriors going to make their foray into the fields, Mima."
"The same place as last time."
"Hmmmm," hummed Wulf. "That's a good tactic only if my troopers are hiding in that warehouse, again. I doubt they are. In fact, it looks like they're nowhere around here. They've probably moved to one of the satellite fields."
Mima held out Gramp's binoculars to Wulf. "Can I try on that clever helmet of yours, trooper?" She smiled her shy little smile, the one that showed the diffidence she still displayed in working with Wulf.
"It just lets me see things like your binocs do," he temporized.
"I know, but it's getting dark. I want to see how things look in the starlight when it's intensified."
"`Intensified.' She's a quick one. She remembered what I told her weeks ago about the helmet's starlite visor."
"Okay. You can be the trooper for awhile." He removed his helmet.
As he did so, she could see the string around his neck---the one on which was strung an odd-shaped medallion---the one Wulf claimed was his lucky charm.... It was, in fact, the key he would use to behead himself if that became necessary. Inserted into an inconspicuous socket at the front of the helmet, it sparked the explosive charge and spared its wearer the ordeal of ill-treatment after his capture by His Majesty's angry enemies.
"I've got him, sir."
The Countermeasures Operator looked up from his console at the Troop Commander and Sgt. Major, who hovered nearby. "I've located Trooper Wulf. His transponder return is strong. From the gonio-display, I'd say he's up among those big rocks in the foothills.
The Commander frowned. The Sgt. Major said, "Sir, if he's still got his helmet, he must have deserted. The abos would have taken it from him if they made him a prisoner."
"Is it possible someone else is using the helmet?" The Commander knew a helmet had to be activated by a code-keypad before its electronics would switch on.
"I doubt it, sir. Those abos probably wouldn't know to turn it on."
The Commander didn't want to dispute his chief NCO, but he wondered if the abos were really so dumb that they couldn't figure things out and force Trooper Wulf to turn his helmet on for them.
"I want to know for sure: you haven't received any transmissions from Trooper Wulf, have you?" he asked the operator. "And you've tried to signal him, several times?"
"Nothing, sir. The transponder reports his electronics are in good working order: optics, sensors, radio---and initiator." His eyebrows raised a little at the mention of this last electronic device. It was the one that set off the helmet's explosive charge.
That a C/M operator could locate a trooper by the radiotransponder in their helmets was well-known to the dragoons.
What the they didn't know was that they could also be decapitated by remote control.
If a helmet were within radio line-of-sight, a burst-code signal from a secret countermeasures radio set at a base station would do the same thing a trooper did with the key around his neck: initiate the explosive charge.
The decision to send an initiating signal could only be made by the Troop Commander. He had to justify his decision with paperwork, but in his official hands, so to speak, he secretly held the life of every dragoon.
The officer looked to his Sgt. Major for support. The man shook his head: yes. "Sir, we shouldn't let those abo whackers get one of our command-radios. They might be able to monitor our orders to the troopers. The signals are scrambled, and we've changed the scramble code since we lost Trooper Wulf. But if they play around with the keypad, they might just hit the right number---or get it out of him."
"I understand, Sarge." The officer looked at the C/M operator.
He was embarrassed to find himself stammering. He'd never had to behead a deserter before this night. He turned and strode rapidly from the scene without waiting for confirmation of success from the C/M operator.
She had tried to remove Wulf's blood from her clothes before she reported to Baal, but the dark stains prevailed to tell about the terrible incident she had witnessed---the one she had narrowly escaped participating in in a much more direct way.
"I know, Mima.... You are blameless in this matter.
Baal considered Mima's report. "Wulf must have decided he could no longer stand the stress of being a prisoner. He remained a proud dragoon, ever-faithful to his Troop. I should have guessed there was something deadly concealed within it." The former gentleman's gentleman fully accepted responsibility for the debacle as He tried to soothe the girl who had worked so hard to convert the young trooper for the sake of her People.
Mima blew into her handkerchief and wiped her nose. "I wanted to try on the helmet. He took it off---but then he saw something out there in the fields, and he put it on again. And then ...oh..." She tried not to weep again. God needed her knowledge.
"Yes. I understand.... Mima, I am sorry, but I must ask you to resume your role as a guide for one of those dragoons."
She stared at God with her tearful eyes.... What did he mean?
"The same night we captured Wulf, we also captured another trooper."
Mima suppressed her desire to question God about this. He would tell her what she needed to know in His own good time.
"I have kept him confined in a chamber since then, as an experiment, to see if he might be more genuinely-cooperative when we needed to use him. I believe he will be a good subject for your efforts, now."
Baal addressed the guards. "Bring in the other one."
Mima turned to see another dragoon manhandled before God. He was the same age as Trooper Wulf, but he had two rank-marks on the sleeve of his jacket. He was disheveled, bearded, and dirty---but his leaping eyes showed he was alert and receptive to God's commands.... He was even more handsome than Wulf had been.
The guards held him up to keep him from falling and turned his head toward God. The dragoon stared, blinking, at the robot's head in the niche.
"Behold Almighty Baal---God of the People!" cried a guard.
Corporal Carlo had the self-control to remain silent, but his mind reeled at what he saw. "What the hell!... Do these guys actually worship a household robot?... What a hoot. The Almighty Baal is a butler.... Wait 'til they hear about this back at headquarters."
Carlo slowly smiled at Baal. Like Wulf, this trooper had been taught how to pretend and deceive. Even in his starved-and-denied state of mind, he reacted with a nimble skill. He bowed his head in respect.
"Almighty Baal. I'm your servant, Corporal Anthony T. Carlo of His Majesty's Royal Dragoons."
God's voice boomed. "I know what you are, trooper, so I shall dispense with formalities. You will now learn to serve the People in their just struggle against the Emperor's cruel minions---of whom you were recently one of the more rabid."
"Anything you say, God," the dragoon replied, almost irreverently.
Baal took notice of the man's fawning manner, and he was deeply suspicious of him. "This one is not to be trusted by the People, I think. At least, Trooper Wulf was honestly defiant. Cpl. Carlo is just too cooperative."
He continued, "This is Mima. She speaks your language. She will guide you in your search for the new truth."
Carlo glanced, half-lidded, at the young girl in her bloodstained, ragged clothing. "Now there's a change. That little piece isn't half bad. She can guide me anytime. I wonder...?" He wondered about things best left unspoken here in God's chamber.
Baal told Carlo nothing of his predecessor. The dragoon believed himself to be the only trooper to have been captured that night during the first operation against the whackers. Like Wulf, though, he secretly sought an opportunity for escape. He was apprehensive about what these abos had in mind for him---and how his Troop Commander had reclassified him, now that he'd been captured.
"Your cooperation will be appreciated. And when you have ceased to be the Emperor's policeman and have, instead, become a man of the People, certain unspoken rewards will become manifest." Baal's high-flown words referred, of course, to intangibles. But his captive inevitably misinterpreted those words.
"What does Tin-Man mean by that? Do these `People' have something valuable we don't know about?... I'd better go along with 'em and find out things so if I can escape I'll have enough information to restore myself with the Troop---and maybe even get a promotion" Carlo's optimistic calculations would prove wide of the mark.
"Take him, Mima, and enlighten him.... I have spoken!" With that ritualistic proclamation, God fell silent, but pensive.
As Cpl. Carlo was pulled from God's presence by the guards, he glanced over his shoulder at Mima, who followed them, demurely.
"Yeah... Not a bad compensation for being locked up in this filthy abo cave." The trooper's thoughts ranged over the possibilities afforded him by the butler-god's generosity. Baal's words "unspoken rewards" reverberated in his mind's ear.
"Oh, Mima..." called out God. "One other thing..."
They stopped and turned to face Almighty Baal.
God was unable to smirk as he gave Mima an additional order---to her obedient horror.
"Give him back his helmet."
If you enjoyed this story you can e-mail Frederick at: frustam@CapAccess.org
About the Author: Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant who writes science fiction for the Web as a hobby. He formerly indexed technical documents for the Department of Defense. He finds constructing imaginary worlds of the future to be more rewarding than indexing the technology of our times.
As to other of his works, he says: "I have no webpage. My Web existence is entirely in ezines, mostly of the SFF&H variety. As a substitute for a webpage, I've been indexed by the Web search engines, and my readers can read some of my other stories by this means. As a former indexer, I find this gratifying."
Return to the Aphelion main page.