A Slave is a Slave – H. Beam Piper

There has always been strong sympathy for the poor, meek, downtrodden slave— the kindly little man, oppressed by cruel and overbearing masters. Could it possibly have been misplaced…? Jurgen, Prince Trevannion, accepted the coffee cup and lifted it to his lips, then lowered it. These Navy robots always poured coffee too hot; spacemen must have collapsium-lined throats. With the other hand, he punched a button on the robot’s keyboard and received a lighted cigarette; turning, he placed the cup on the command-desk in front of him and looked about. The tension was relaxing in Battle-Control, the purposeful pandemonium of the last three hours dying rapidly. Officers of both sexes, in red and blue and yellow and green coveralls, were rising from seats, leaving their stations, gathering in groups. Laughter, a trifle loud; he realized, suddenly, that they had been worried, and wondered if he should not have been a little so himself. No. There would have been nothing he could have done about anything, so worry would not have been useful. He lifted the cup again and sipped cautiously. “That’s everything we can do now,” the man beside him said. “Now we just sit and wait for the next move.” Like all the others, Line-Commodore Vann Shatrak wore shipboard battle-dress; his coveralls were black, splashed on breast and between shoulders with the gold insignia of his rank. His head was completely bald, and almost spherical; a beaklike nose carried down the curve of his brow, and the straight lines of mouth and chin chopped under it enhanced rather than spoiled the effect. He was getting coffee; he gulped it at once.

“It was very smart work, Commodore. I never saw a landing operation go so smoothly.” “Too smooth,” Shatrak said. “I don’t trust it.” He looked suspiciously up at the row of viewscreens. “It was absolutely unnecessary!” That was young Obray, Count Erskyll, seated on the commodore’s left. He was a generation younger than Prince Trevannion, as Shatrak was a generation older; they were both smooth-faced. It was odd, how beards went in and out of fashion with alternate generations. He had been worried, too, during the landing, but for a different reason from the others. Now he was reacting with anger.

“I told you, from the first, that it was unnecessary. You see? They weren’t even able to defend themselves, let alone….” His personal communication-screen buzzed; he set down the coffee and flicked the switch. It was Lanze Degbrend. On the books, Lanze was carried as Assistant to the Ministerial Secretary. In practice, Lanze was his chess-opponent, conversational foil, right hand, third eye and ear, and, sometimes, trigger-finger. Lanze was now wearing the combat coveralls of an officer of Navy Landing-Troops; he had a steel helmet with a transpex visor shoved up, and there was a carbine slung over his shoulder. He grinned and executed an exaggeratedly military salute. He chuckled. “Well, look at you; aren’t you the perfect picture of correct diplomatic dress?” “You know, sir, I’m afraid I am, for this planet,” Degbrend said.

“Colonel Ravney insisted on it. He says the situation downstairs is still fluid, which I take to mean that everybody is shooting at everybody. He says he has the main telecast station, in the big building the locals call the Citadel.” “Oh, good. Get our announcement out as quickly as you can. Number Five. You and Colonel Ravney can decide what interpolations are needed to fit the situation.” “Number Five; the really tough one,” Degbrend considered. “I take it that by interpolations you do not mean dilutions?” “Oh, no; don’t water the drink. Spike it.

” Lanze Degbrend grinned at him. Then he snapped down the visor of his helmet, unslung his carbine, and presented it. He was still standing at present arms when Trevannion blanked the screen. “That still doesn’t excuse a wanton and unprovoked aggression!” Erskyll was telling Shatrak, his thin face flushed and his voice quivering with indignation. “We came here to help these people, not to murder them.” “We didn’t come here to do either, Obray,” he said, turning to face the younger man. “We came here to annex their planet to the Galactic Empire, whether they wish it annexed or not. Commodore Shatrak used the quickest and most effective method of doing that. It would have done no good to attempt to parley with them from off-planet. You heard those telecasts of theirs.

” “Authoritarian,” Shatrak said, then mimicked pompously: “‘Everybody is commanded to remain calm; the Mastership is taking action. The Convocation of the Lords-Master is in special session; they will decide how to deal with the invaders. The administrators are directed to reassure the supervisors; the overseers will keep the workers at their tasks. Any person disobeying the orders of the Mastership will be dealt with most severely.'” “Static, too. No spaceships into this system for the last five hundred years; the Convocation—equals Parliament, I assume—hasn’t been in special session for two hundred and fifty.” “Yes. I’ve taken over planets with that kind of government before,” Shatrak said. “You can’t argue with them. You just grab them by the center of authority, quick and hard.

” Count Erskyll said nothing for a moment. He was opposed to the use of force. Force, he believed, was the last resort of incompetence; he had said so frequently enough since this operation had begun. Of course, he was absolutely right, though not in the way he meant. Only the incompetent wait until the last extremity to use force, and by then, it is usually too late to use anything, even prayer. But, at the same time, he was opposed to authoritarianism, except, of course, when necessary for the real good of the people. And he did not like rulers who called themselves Lords-Master. Good democratic rulers called themselves Servants of the People. So he relapsed into silence and stared at the viewscreens. One, from an outside pickup on the Empress Eulalie herself, showed the surface of the planet, a hundred miles down, the continent under them curving away to a distant sun-reflecting sea; beyond the curved horizon, the black sky was spangled with unwinking stars.

Fifty miles down, the sun glinted from the three thousand foot globes of the two transport-cruisers, Canopus and Mizar. Another screen, from Mizar, gave a clearer if more circumscribed view of the surface—green countryside, veined by rivers and wrinkled with mountains; little towns that were mere dots; a scatter of white clouds. Nothing that looked like roads. There had been no native sapient race on this planet, and in the thirteen centuries since it had been colonized the Terro-human population had never completely lost the use of contragravity vehicles. In that screen, farther down, the four destroyers, Irma, Irene, Isobel and Iris, were tiny twinkles. From Irene, they had a magnified view of the city. On the maps, none later than eight hundred years old, it was called Zeggensburg; it had been built at the time of the first colonization under the old Terran Federation. Tall buildings, rising from wide interspaces of lawns and parks and gardens, and, at the very center, widely separated from anything else, the mass of the Citadel, a huge cylindrical tower rising from a cluster of smaller cylinders, with a broad circular landing stage above, topped by the newly raised flag of the Galactic Empire. There was a second city, a thick crescent, to the south and east. The old maps placed the Zeggensburg spaceport there, but not a trace of that remained.

In its place was what was evidently an industrial district, located where the prevailing winds would carry away the dust and smoke. There was quite a bit of both, but the surprising thing was the streets, long curved ones, and shorter ones crossing at regular intervals to form blocks. He had never seen a city with streets before, and he doubted if anybody else on the Empire ships had. Long boulevards to give unobstructed passage to low-level air-traffic, of course, and short winding walkways, but not things like these. Pictures, of course, of native cities on planets colonized at the time of the Federation, and even very ancient ones of cities on pre-Atomic Terra. But these people had contragravity; the towering, wide-spaced city beside this cross-gridded anachronism proved that. They knew so little about this planet which they had come to bring under Imperial rule. It had been colonized thirteen centuries ago, during the last burst of expansion before the System States War and the disintegration of the Terran Federation, and it had been named Aditya, in the fashion of the times, for some forgotten deity of some obscure and ancient polytheism. A century or so later, it had seceded from or been abandoned by the Federation, then breaking up. That much they had gleaned from old Federation records still existing on Baldur.

After that, darkness, lighted only by a brief flicker when more records had turned up on Morglay. Morglay was one of the Sword-Worlds, settled by refugee rebels from the System States planets. Mostly they had been soldiers and spacemen; there had been many women with them, and many were skilled technicians, engineers, scientists. They had managed to carry off considerable equipment with them, and for three centuries they had lived in isolation, spreading over a dozen hitherto undiscovered planets. Excalibur, Tizona, Gram, Morglay, Durendal, Flamberge, Curtana, Quernbiter; the names were a roll-call of fabulous blades of Old Terran legend. Then they had erupted, suddenly and calamitously, into what was left of the Terran Federation as the Space Vikings, carrying pillage and destruction, until the newborn Empire rose to vanquish them. In the sixth Century Pre-Empire, one of their fleets had come from Morglay to Aditya. The Adityans of that time had been near-barbarians; the descendants of the original settlers had been serfs of other barbarians who had come as mercenaries in the service of one or another of the local chieftains and had remained to loot and rule. Subjugating them had been easy; the Space Vikings had taken Aditya and made it their home. For several centuries, there had been communication between them and their home planet.

Then Morglay had become involved in one of the interplanetary dynastic wars that had begun the decadence of the Space Vikings, and again Aditya dropped out of history. Until this morning, when history returned in the black ships of the Galactic Empire. He stubbed out the cigarette and summoned the robot to give him another. Shatrak was speaking: “You see, Count Erskyll, we really had to do it this way, for their own good.” He wouldn’t have credited the commodore with such guile; anything was justified, according to Obray of Erskyll, if done for somebody else’s good. “What we did, we just landed suddenly, knocked out their army, seized the center of government, before anybody could do anything. If we’d landed the way you’d wanted us to, somebody would have resisted, and the next thing, we’d have had to kill about five or six thousand of them and blow down a couple of towns, and we’d have lost a lot of our own people doing it. You might say, we had to do it to save them from themselves.” Obray of Erskyll seemed to have doubts, but before he could articulate them, Shatrak’s communication-screen was calling attention to itself. The commodore flicked the switch, and his executive officer, Captain Patrique Morvill, appeared in it.

“We’ve just gotten reports, sir, that some of Ravney’s people have captured a half-dozen missilelaunching sites around the city. His air-reconn tells him that that’s the lot of them. I have an officer of one of the parties that participated. You ought to hear what he has to say, sir.” “Well, good!” Vann Shatrak whooshed out his breath. “I don’t mind admitting, I was a little on edge about that.” “Wait till you hear what Lieutenant Carmath has to say.” Morvill seemed to be strangling a laugh. “Ready for him, Commodore?” Shatrak nodded; Morvill made a hand-signal and vanished in a flicker of rainbow colors; when the screen cleared, a young Landing-Troop lieutenant in battle-dress was looking out of it. He saluted and gave his name, rank and unit.

“This missile-launching site I’m occupying, sir; it’s twenty miles north-west of the city. We took it thirty minutes ago; no resistance whatever. There are four hundred or so people here. Of them, twelve, one dozen, are soldiers. The rest are civilians. Ten enlisted men, a non-com of some sort, and something that appears to be an officer. The officer had a pistol, fully loaded. The non-com had a submachine gun, empty, with two loaded clips on his belt. The privates had rifles, empty, and no ammunition. The officer did not know where the rifle ammunition was stored.

” Shatrak swore. The second lieutenant nodded. “Exactly my comment when he told me, sir. But this place is beautifully kept up. Lawns all mowed, trees neatly pruned, everything policed up like inspection morning. And there is a headquarters office building here adequate for an army division….” “How about the armament, Lieutenant?” Shatrak asked with forced patience. “Ah, yes; the armament, sir. There are eight big launching cradles for panplanetary or off-planet missiles. They are all polished up like the Crown Jewels.

But none, repeat none, of them is operative. And there is not a single missile on the installation.” Shatrak’s facial control didn’t slip. It merely intensified, which amounted to the same thing. “Lieutenant Carmath, I am morally certain I heard you correctly, but let’s just check. You said….” He repeated the lieutenant back, almost word for word. Carmath nodded. “That was it, sir. The missile-crypts are stacked full of old photoprints and recording and microfilm spools.

The sighting-and-guidance systems for all the launchers are completely missing. The letoff mechanisms all lack major parts. There is an elaborate set of detection equipment, which will detect absolutely nothing. I saw a few pairs of binoculars about; I suspect that that is what we were first observed with.” “This office, now; I suppose all the paperwork is up to the minute in quintulplicate, and initialed by everybody within sight or hearing?” “I haven’t checked on that yet, sir. If you’re thinking of betting on it, please don’t expect me to cover you, though.” “Well, thank you, Lieutenant Carmath. Stick around; I’m sending down a tech-intelligence crew to look at what’s left of the place. While you’re waiting, you might sort out whoever seems to be in charge and find out just what in Nifflheim he thinks that launching-station was maintained for.”

.

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