Sixth column, p.8
Sixth Column, p.8Robert A. Heinlein
Two doors of heroic size swung slowly open as the lieutenant ascended. In the archway thus created stood a human figure, a man, dressed in emerald robes that brushed the floor. White hair and flowing beard framed a face of benign dignity. He moved majestically forward from the doorway, reaching the top of the flight of steps just as the lieutenant attained it. The lieutenant noted with amazement that a halo flickered unsubstantially around the old man’s head. But he had little time to consider it; the old man raised his right hand in benediction and spoke:
“Peace be unto you!”
And it was so! The feeling of dread, of irrational fright, dropped away from the PanAsian as if someone had turned a switch. In his relief he found himself regarding this member of an inferior race—so evidently a priest—with a warmth reserved for equals. He recalled the Admonitions for dealing with inferior religions.
“What is this place, Holy One?”
“You stand at the threshold of the Temple of Mota, Lord of Lords and Lord of All!”
“Mota—h-m-m-m.” He could not recall such a god, but it did not matter. These sallow creatures had a thousand strange gods. Three things only do slaves require, food, work, and their gods, and of the three their gods must never be touched, else they grow troublesome. So said the Precepts for Ruling. “Who are you?”
“I am an humble priest, First Server of Shaam, Lord of Peace.”
“Shaam? I thought you said Mota was your god?”
“We serve the Lord Mota in six of his thousand attributes. You serve him in your way. Even the Heavenly Emperor serves him in his. My duty is to the Lord of Peace.”
This was perilously close to treason, the lieutenant thought, if not to blasphemy. Still, it may be that the gods have many names, and the native did not seem disposed to make trouble. “Very well, old Holy One, the Heavenly Emperor permits you to serve your god as you see him, but I must inspect for the Empire. Stand aside.”
The old man did not move, but answered regretfully, “I am sorry, Master. It cannot be.”
“It must be. Stand aside!”
“Please, Master, I beg of you! It is not possible for you to enter here. In these attributes Mota is Lord of the white men. You must go to your own temple; you cannot enter this one. It is death to any but his followers.”
“You threaten me?”
“No, Master, no—we serve the Emperor, as our faith requires. But this thing the Lord Mota Himself forbids. I cannot save you if you offend.”
“On the Heavenly Emperor’s service—stand aside!” He strode steadily across the broad terrace toward the door, his squad clomping stolidly after him. The panic dread clutched at him as he marched and increased in intensity as he approached the great door. His heart seemed constricted, and a mad longing to flee clamored through him senselessly. Only the fatalistic courage of his training made him go on. Through the door he saw a vast empty hall and on the far side an altar, large in itself, but dwarfed by the mammoth proportions of the room. The inner walls shone, each with its own light, red, blue, green, golden. The ceiling was a perfect, flawless white, the floor an equally perfect black.
There was nothing to be afraid of here, he told himself, this illogical but horribly real dread was a sickness, unworthy of a warrior. He stepped across the threshold. A momentary dizziness, a flash of terrifying insecurity and he collapsed.
His squad, close at his heels, had no more warning.
Ardmore came trotting out of concealment. “Nice work, Jeff,” he called out, “you should be on the stage!”
The old priest relaxed. “Thanks, Chief. What happens next?”
“We’ll have time to figure that out.” He turned toward the altar and shouted, “Scheer!”
“Turn off the fourteen-cycle note!” He added to Thomas, “Those damned subsonics give me the creeping horrors even when I know what’s going on. I wonder what effect it had on our pal here?”
“He was cracking up, I believe. I never thought he’d make it to the doorway.”
“I don’t blame him. It made me want to howl like a dog, and I ordered it turned on. There’s nothing like the fear of something you can’t understand to break a man down. Well, we got a bear by the tail. Now to figure out a way to turn loose—”
“How about him?” Thomas jerked his head toward the mountaineer, who still stood near the head of the great flight of steps.
“Oh, yes.” Ardmore whistled at him and shouted, “Hey you—come here!”
The man hesitated, and Ardmore added, “Damn it—we’re white men! Can’t you see that?”
The man answered, “I see it, but I don’t like it.” Nevertheless he slowly approached.
Ardmore said, “This is a piece of razzle-dazzle for the benefit of our yellow brethren. Now that you’re in it, you’re in it! Are you game?”
The other members of the personnel of the Citadel had gathered around by this time. The mountain guide glanced around at their faces. “It doesn’t look as if I had much choice.”
“Maybe not, but we would rather have a volunteer than a prisoner.”
The mountaineer shifted tobacco from left cheek to right, glanced around the immaculate pavement for a place to spit, decided not to, and answered. “What’s the game?”
“It’s a frame-up on our Asiatic bosses. We plan to give them the run-around—with the help of God and the great Lord Mota.”
The guide looked them over again, then suddenly stuck out his hand and said, “I’m in.”
“Fine,” agreed Ardmore, taking his hand. “What’s your name?”
“Howe. Alexander Hamilton Howe. Friends call me Alec.”
“O.K., Alec. Now what can you do? Can you cook?” he added.
“Good.” He turned away. “Graham, he’s your man for now. I’ll talk with him later. Now—Jeff, did it seem to you that one of those monkeys went down a little slowly?”
“This one; wasn’t it?” He touched one of the quiet, sprawled figures with his shoe.
“I think so.”
“All right, I want to check up on him before we bring them to. If he’s a Mongolian he should have keeled over quicker. Dr. Brooks, will you give this laddie’s reflexes a work-out? And don’t be too gentle about it.”
Brooks managed to produce some jerks in short order. Seeing this, Ardmore reached down and set his thumb firmly on the exposed nerve under the ear. The soldier came to his knees, writhing. “All right, bud—explain yourself.” The soldier stared impassively. Ardmore studied his face for a moment, then made a quick gesture, which was protected from the gaze of the others by his body.
“Why didn’t you say so?” asked the PanAsian soldier.
“I must say it’s a good make-up job,” commented Ardmore admiringly. “What’s your name and rank?”
“Tattoo and plastic surgery,” the other returned. “Name’s Downer, captain, United States army.”
“Mine’s Ardmore. Major Ardmore.”
“Glad to know you, Major.” They shook hands. “Very glad, I should say. I’ve been hanging on for months, wondering who to report to and how.”
“Well, we can certainly use you. It’s a scratch organization. I’ve got to get busy now—we’ll talk later.” He turned away. “Places, gentlemen. Second act. Check each other’s make-up. Wilkie, see to it that Howe and Downer are out of sight. We are going to bring our drowsy guests back to consciousness.”
They started to comply. Downer touched Ardmore’s sleeve.
“Just a moment, Major. I don’t know your layout, but before we go any further, are you sure you don’t want me to stay on my present assignment?”
“Eh? H-m-m-m—you’ve got something there. Are you willing to do it?”
“I’m willing to do it, if it’s useful,” Downer replied soberly.
“It would be useful. Thomas, come here.” The three of them went into a short conference and arranged a way for Downer to report through the
Thomas, Ardmore, and Calhoun attended the Asiatic lieutenant as his eyes flickered open. “Praise be!” intoned Thomas. “The Master lives!”
The lieutenant stared around him, shook his head, then reached for his sidearm. Ardmore, impressive in the red robes of Dis, Lord of Destruction, held up a hand. “Careful, Master, please! I have beseeched my Lord Dis to return you to us. Do not offend him again.”
The Asiatic hesitated, then asked, “What happened?”
“The Lord Mota, acting through Dis, the Destroyer, took you for his own. We prayed and wept and beseeched Tamar, Lady of Mercy, to intercede for us.” He swept an arm toward the open door. Wilkie, Graham, and Brooks, appropriately clad, were still busily genuflecting before the altar. “Graciously, our prayer was answered. Go in peace!”
Scheer, at the control board, picked this moment to increase the volume on the fourteen-cycle note. With nameless fear pressing his heart, confused, baffled, the lieutenant took the easy way out. He gathered his men about him and marched back down the broad flight of stairs, colossal organ music still following him in awful, inescapable accompaniment.
“Well, that’s that,” Ardmore commented as the little group disappeared in the distance. “First round to God’s chilluns. Thomas, I want you to start into town at once.”
“In your robes and full paraphernalia. Seek out the district boss and register formal complaint that Lieutenant Stinkyface did wrongfully profane our sacred places to the great indignation of our gods, and pray for assurance that it will not happen again. You want to be on your high horse about the whole matter—righteous indignation, you know—but, oh, very respectful to temporal authority.”
“I appreciate the confidence you place in me,” Thomas said with sardonic grimness. Ardmore grinned at him.
“I know it’s a tough assignment, fella, but a lot depends on it. If we can make use of their own customs and rules to establish a precedent right now which sets us up as a legitimate religion, entitled to all the usual immunities, we’ve got half the battle won.”
“Suppose they ask for my identification card?”
“If you carry yourself with sufficient arrogance they will never get around to asking for it. Just think about the typical clubwoman and try to show that much bulge. I want ’em to get used to the idea that anyone with the staff and the robes and the halo carries his identification just in his appearance. It will save us trouble later.”
“I’ll try—but I’m not promising anything.”
“I think you can do it. Anyhow, you are going out equipped with enough stuff to keep you safe. Keep your shield turned on whenever you are around any of ’em. Don’t try to account for it in any way; just let ’em bounce off it, if they close in on you. It’s a miracle—no need to explain.”
The lieutenant’s report was not satisfactory to his superiors. As for that, it was not satisfactory to himself. He felt an acute sense of loss of personal honor, of face, which the words of his immediate superior did nothing to lessen. “You, an officer in the army of the Heavenly Emperor, have permitted yourself to look small in the eyes of a subject race. What have you to say?”
“Your forgiveness, sire!”
“Not for me—it is a matter for you to settle with your ancestors.”
“I hear, sire!” He caressed the short sword which hung at his side.
“Let there be no haste; I intend for you to tell your tale in person to the Imperial Hand.”
The local Hand of the Emperor, military governor of that region which included Denver and the Citadel, was no more pleased than his junior. “What possessed you to enter their holy place? These people are childlike, excitable. Your action could be the regrettable cause of assassinations of many more valuable than yourself. We cannot be forever wasting slaves to teach them lessons.”
“I am unworthy, sire.”
“I do not dispute that. You may go.” The lieutenant departed, to join, not his family, but his ancestors.
The Imperial Hand turned to his adjutant. “We will probably be petitioned by this cult. See that the petitioners are pacified and assured that their gods will not be disturbed. Note the characteristics of the sect and send out a general warning to deal gently with it.” He sighed. “These savages and their false gods! I grow weary of them. Yet they are necessary; the priests and the gods of slaves always fight on the side of the Masters. It is a rule of nature.”
“You have spoken, sire.”
Ardmore was glad to see Thomas return to the Citadel. In spite of his confidence in Jeff’s ability to handle himself in a tight place, in spite of the assurance that Calhoun had given him that the protective shield, properly handled, would protect the wearer from anything that the PanAsian could bring on it, he had been in a state of nerves ever since Thomas had set out to register a complaint with the Asiatic authorities. After all, the attitude of the PanAsians toward local religions might be one of bare toleration rather than special encouragement.
“Welcome home, old boy!” he shouted, pounding him on the back. “I’m glad to see your ugly face—tell me what happened?”
“Give me time to get out of this bloody bathrobe, and I’ll tell you. Got a cigarette? That’s a bad point about being a holy man; they don’t smoke.”
“Sure. Here. Had anything to eat?”
Ardmore flipped the intercommunicator to Kitchen. “Alec, rustle up some groceries for Lieutenant Thomas. And tell the troops they can hear his story if they come around to my office.”
“Ask him if he has any avocados.”
Ardmore did so. “He says they’re still in quick freeze, but he’ll thaw one out. Now let’s have your story. What did Little Red Riding Hood say to the wolf?”
“Well—you’ll hardly believe it, Chief, but I didn’t have any trouble at all. When I got into town, I marched right straight up to the first PanAsian policeman I found, stepped off the curb, and struck the old benediction pose—staff in my left hand, right hand pawing the air; none of this hands folded and head down stuff that white men are supposed to use. Then I said, ‘Peace be unto you! Will the Master direct his servant to the seat of the Heavenly Emperor’s government?’
“I don’t think he understood much English. He seemed startled at my manner, and got hold of another flatface to help him. This one knew more English and I repeated my request. They palavered in that damned sing-song tongue of theirs, then conducted me to the palace of the Emperor’s Hand. We made quite a procession—one on each side and me walking fast so that I kept about even or a little in front of them.”
“Good advertising,” Ardmore approved.
“That’s what I thought. Anyway, they got me there and I told my story to some underofficial. The results astounded me. I was whisked right straight up to the Hand himself.”
“The hell you say!”
“Wait a minute—here’s the pay-off. I’ll admit I was scared, but I said to myself ‘Jeff, old boy, if you start to crawl now, you’ll never get out of here alive.’ I knew a white man is expected to drop to his knees before an official of that rank. I didn’t; I gave him the same standing benediction I had given his flunkies. And he let me get away with it! He looked me over and said, ‘I thank you for your blessing, Holy One. You may approach.’ He speaks excellent English, by the way.
“Well, I gave him a reasonably accurate version of what happened here—the official version, you understand—and he asked me a few questions.”
“What sort of questions?”
“In the first place he wanted to know if my religion recognized the authority of the Emperor. I assured him that it did, that our followers were absolutely bound to obey temporal authority in all temporal matters, but that our creed commanded us to worship the tru
“How did he take it?”
“I gathered that he thought it was very sound doctrine—for slaves. He asked me what my church did besides holding services, and I told him that our principal desire is to minister to the poor and sick. He seemed pleased at that. I have an impression that our gracious overlords are finding relief a very serious problem.”
“Relief? Do they give any relief?”
“Not exactly. But if you load prisoners into concentration camps you have to feed them something. The internal economy has largely broken down and they haven’t got it straightened out yet. I think they would welcome a movement which would relieve them from worrying too much over how to feed the slaves.”
“H-m-m-m. Anything else?”
“Nothing much. I assured him again that we, as spiritual leaders, were forbidden by our doctrines to have anything to do with politics, and he told me that we would not be molested in the future. Then he dismissed me. I repeated my benediction, turned my back on him, and stomped out.”
“It seems to me,” said Ardmore, “that you pretty thoroughly sold him a bill of goods.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure, Chief. That old scoundrel is shrewd and Machiavellian. I shouldn’t call him a scoundrel, because he’s not—by his standards. He’s a statesman. I’ve got to admit he impressed me. Look—these PanAsians can’t be stupid; they’ve conquered and held half a world, hundreds of millions of people. If they tolerate local religions, it’s because they have found it to be smart politics. We’ve got to keep them thinking so in our case, in the face of smart and experienced administrators.”
Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes