Sense of Obligation - Harry Harrison - ebook

It took a very special type of man for the job - and the job was onerous, dangerous, and the only really probable reward was disaster. But when a man who says he knows it's going to kill him asks you to join.... A sci-fi masterpiece by the immortal Harry Harrison!

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Harry Harrison


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Copyright © 2016 by Harry Harrison

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A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

Stephen Crane

sweat covered Brion’s body, trickling into the tight loincloth that was the only garment he wore. The light fencing foil in his hand felt as heavy as a bar of lead to his exhausted muscles, worn out by a month of continual exercise. These things were of no importance. The cut on his chest, still dripping blood, the ache of his overstrained eyes—even the soaring arena around him with the thousands of spectators—were trivialities not worth thinking about. There was only one thing in his universe: the button-tipped length of shining steel that hovered before him, engaging his own weapon. He felt the quiver and scrape of its life, knew when it moved and moved himself to counteract it. And when he attacked, it was always there to beat him aside.

A sudden motion. He reacted—but his blade just met air. His instant of panic was followed by a small sharp blow high on his chest.

“Touch!“ A world-shaking voice bellowed the word to a million waiting loud-speakers, and the applause of the audience echoed back in a wave of sound.

“One minute,” a voice said, and the time buzzer sounded.

Brion had carefully conditioned the reflex in himself. A minute is not a very large measure of time and his body needed every fraction of it. The buzzer’s whirr triggered his muscles into complete relaxation. Only his heart and lungs worked on at a strong, measured rate. His eyes closed and he was only distantly aware of his handlers catching him as he fell, carrying him to his bench. While they massaged his limp body and cleansed the wound, all of his attention was turned inward. He was in reverie, sliding along the borders of consciousness. The nagging memory of the previous night loomed up then, and he turned it over and over in his mind, examining it from all sides.

It was the very unexpectedness of the event that had been so unusual. The contestants in the Twenties needed undisturbed rest, therefore nights in the dormitories were quiet as death. During the first few days, of course, the rule wasn’t observed too closely. The men themselves were too keyed up and excited to rest easily. But as soon as the scores begin to mount and eliminations cut into their ranks, there is complete silence after dark. Particularly so on this last night, when only two of the little cubicles were occupied, the thousands of others standing with dark, empty doors.

Angry words had dragged Brion from a deep and exhausted sleep. The words were whispered but clear, two voices, just outside the thin metal of his door. Someone spoke his name.

“... Brion Brandd. Of course not. Whoever said you could was making a big mistake and there is going to be trouble—”

“Don’t talk like an idiot!” This other voice snapped with a harsh urgency, clearly used to command. “I’m here because the matter is of utmost importance, and Brandd is the one I must see. Now stand aside!”

“The Twenties—”

“I don’t give a damn about your games, hearty cheers and physical exercises. This is important or I wouldn’t be here!”

The other didn’t speak—he was surely one of the officials—and Brion could sense his outraged anger. He must have drawn his gun, because the other man said quickly, “Put that away. You’re being a fool!”

“Out!” was the single snarled word of the response. There was silence then and, still wondering, Brion was once more asleep.

“Ten seconds.”

The voice chopped away Brion’s memories and he let awareness seep back into his body. He was unhappily conscious of his total exhaustion. The month of continuous mental and physical combat had taken its toll. It would be hard to stay on his feet, much less summon the strength and skill to fight and win a touch.

“How do we stand?” he asked the handler who was kneading his aching muscles.

“Four ... four. All you need is a touch to win!”

“That’s all he needs, too,” Brion grunted, opening his eyes to look at the wiry length of the man at the other end of the long mat. No one who had reached the finals in the Twenties could possibly be a weak opponent, but this one, Irolg, was the pick of the lot. A red-haired, mountain of a man, with an apparently inexhaustible store of energy. That was really all that counted now. There could be little art in this last and final round of fencing. Just thrust and parry, and victory to the stronger.

Brion closed his eyes again and knew the moment he had been hoping to avoid had arrived.

Every man who entered the Twenties had his own training tricks. Brion had a few individual ones that had helped him so far. He was a moderately strong chess player, but he had moved to quick victory in the chess rounds by playing incredibly unorthodox games. This was no accident, but the result of years of work. He had a standing order with offplanet agents for archaic chess books, the older the better. He had memorized thousands of these ancient games and openings. This was allowed. Anything was allowed that didn’t involve drugs or machines. Self-hypnosis was an accepted tool.

It had taken Brion over two years to find a way to tap the sources of hysterical strength. Common as the phenomenon seemed to be in the textbooks, it proved impossible to duplicate. There appeared to be an immediate association with the death-trauma, as if the two were inextricably linked into one. Berserkers and juramentados continue to fight and kill though carved by scores of mortal wounds. Men with bullets in the heart or brain fight on, though already clinically dead. Death seemed an inescapable part of this kind of strength. But there was another type that could easily be brought about in any deep trance—hypnotic rigidity. The strength that enables someone in a trance to hold his body stiff and unsupported except at two points, the head and heels. This is physically impossible when conscious. Working with this as a clue, Brion had developed a self-hypnotic technique that allowed him to tap these reservoirs of unknown strength. The source of “second wind,” the survival strength that made the difference between life and death.

It could also kill. Exhaust the body beyond hope of recovery, particularly when in a weakened condition as his was now. But that wasn’t important. Others had died before during the Twenties, and death during the last round was in some ways easier than defeat.

Breathing deeply, Brion softly spoke the auto-hypnotic phrases that triggered the process. Fatigue fell softly from him, as did all sensations of heat, cold and pain. He could feel with acute sensitivity, hear, and see clearly when he opened his eyes.

With each passing second the power drew at the basic reserves of life, draining it from his body.

When the buzzer sounded he pulled his foil from his second’s startled grasp, and ran forward. Irolg had barely time to grab up his own weapon and parry Brion’s first thrust. The force of his rush was so great that the guards on their weapons locked, and their bodies crashed together. Irolg looked amazed at the sudden fury of the attack—then smiled. He thought it was a last burst of energy, he knew how close they both were to exhaustion. This must be the end for Brion.

They disengaged and Irolg put up a solid defense. He didn’t attempt to attack, just let Brion wear himself out against the firm shield of his defense.

Brion saw something close to panic on his opponent’s face when the man finally recognized his error. Brion wasn’t tiring. If anything he was pressing the attack. A wave of despair rolled out from Irolg—Brion sensed it and knew the fifth point was his.

Thrust—thrust—and each time the parrying sword a little slower to return. Then the powerful twist that thrust it aside. In and under the guard. The slap of the button on flesh and the arc of steel that reached out and ended on Irolg’s chest over his heart.

Waves of sound—cheering and screaming—lapped against Brion’s private world, but he was only remotely aware of their existence. Irolg dropped his foil, and tried to shake Brion’s hand, but his legs suddenly gave way. Brion had an arm around him, holding him up, walking towards the rushing handlers. Then Irolg was gone and he waved off his own men, walking slowly by himself.

Except something was wrong and it was like walking through warm glue. Walking on his knees. No, not walking, falling. At last. He was able to let go and fall.



IHJEL GAVE THE DOCTORS EXACTLY one day before he went to the hospital. Brion wasn’t dead, though there had been some doubt about that the night before. Now, a full day later, he was on the mend and that was all Ihjel wanted to know. He bullied and strong-armed his way to the new Winner’s room, meeting his first stiff resistance at the door.

“You’re out of order, Winner Ihjel,” the doctor said. “And if you keep on forcing yourself in here, where you are not wanted, rank or no rank I shall be obliged to break your head.”

Ihjel had just begun to tell him, in some detail, just how slim his chances were of accomplishing that, when Brion interrupted them both. He recognized the newcomer’s voice from the final night in the barracks.

“Let him in, Dr. Caulry,” he said. “I want to meet a man who thinks there is something more important than the Twenties.”

While the doctor stood undecided, Ihjel moved quickly around him and closed the door in his flushed face. He looked down at the Winner in the bed. There was a drip plugged into each one of Brion’s arms. His eyes peered from sooty hollows; the eyeballs were a network of red veins. The silent battle he fought against death had left its mark. His square, jutting jaw now seemed all bone, as did his long nose and high cheekbones. They were prominent landmarks rising from the limp grayness of his skin. Only the erect bristle of his close-cropped hair was unchanged. He had the appearance of having suffered a long and wasting illness.

“You look like sin,” Ihjel said. “But congratulations on your victory.”

“You don’t look so very good yourself—for a Winner,” Brion snapped back. His exhaustion and sudden peevish anger at this man let the insulting words slip out. Ihjel ignored them.

But it was true, Winner Ihjel looked very little like a Winner, or even an Anvharian. He had the height and the frame all right, but it was draped in billows of fat. Rounded, soft tissue that hung loosely from his limbs and made little limp rolls on his neck and under his eyes. There were no fat men on Anvhar and it was incredible that a man so gross could ever have been a Winner. If there was muscle under the fat, it couldn’t be seen. Only his eyes appeared to still hold the strength that had once bested every man on the planet to win the annual games. Brion turned away from their burning stare, sorry now he had insulted the man without good reason. He was too sick though to bother about apologizing.

Ihjel didn’t care either. Brion looked at him again and felt the impression of things so important that himself, his insults, even the Twenties were of no more interest than dust motes in the air. It was only a fantasy of sick mind, Brion knew, and he tried to shake the feeling off. The two men stared at each other, sharing a common emotion.

The door opened soundlessly behind Ihjel and he wheeled about, moving as only an athlete of Anvhar can move. Dr. Caulry was halfway through the door, off balance. Two more men in uniform came close behind him. Ihjel’s body pushed against them, his speed and the mountainous mass of his flesh sending them back in a tangle of arms and legs. He slammed the door and locked it in their faces.

“I have to talk to you,” he said, turning back to Brion. “Privately,” he added, bending over and ripping out the communicator with a sweep of one hand.

“Get out,” Brion told him. “If I were able—”

“Well you’re not, so you’re just going to have to lie there and listen. I imagine we have about five minutes before they decide to break the door down, and I don’t want to waste any more of that. Will you come with me offworld? There’s a job that must be done, it’s my job but I’m going to need help. You’re the only one who can give me that help.

“Now refuse,” he added as Brion started to answer.

“Of course I refuse,” Brion said, feeling a little foolish and slightly angry, as if the other man had put the words into his mouth. “Anvhar is my planet—why should I leave? My life is here and so is my work. I also might add that I have just won the Twenties, I have a responsibility to remain.”

“Nonsense. I’m a Winner and I left. What you really mean is you would like to enjoy a little of the ego-inflation you have worked so hard to get. Off Anvhar no one even knows what a Winner is—much less respects one. You have to face a big universe out there and I don’t blame you for being a little frightened.”

Someone was hammering loudly on the door.

“I haven’t the strength to get angry,” Brion said hoarsely. “And I can’t bring myself to admire your ideas when they permit you to insult a man too ill to defend himself.”

“I apologize,” Ihjel said, with no hint of apology or sympathy in his voice. “But there are more desperate issues involved other than your hurt feelings. We don’t have much time now, so I want to impress you with an idea.”

“An idea that will convince me to go offplanet with you? That’s expecting a lot.”

“No, this idea won’t convince you—but thinking about it will. If you really consider it you will find a lot of your illusions shattered. Like everyone else on Anvhar you’re a Scientific Humanist with your faith firmly planted in the Twenties. You accept both of those noble institutions without an instant’s thought. All of you haven’t a single thought for the past, for the untold billions who led the bad life as mankind slowly built up the good life for you to lead. Do you ever think of all the people who suffered and died in misery and superstition while civilization was clicking forward one more slow notch?”

“Of course I don’t think about them,” Brion snapped back. “Why should I? I can’t change the past.”

“But you can change the future!” Ihjel said. “You owe something to the suffering ancestors who got you where you are today. If Scientific Humanism means anything more than plain words to you, you must possess a sense of responsibility. Don’t you want to try and pay off a bit of this debt by helping others who are just as backward and disease ridden today as great-grandfather Troglodyte ever was?”

The hammering on the door was louder, this and the drug-induced buzzing in Brion’s ears made thinking difficult. “Abstractedly I, of course, agree with you,” he said haltingly. “But you know there is nothing I can do personally without being emotionally involved. A logical decision is valueless for action without personal meaning.”

“Then we have reached the crux of the matter,” Ihjel said gently. His back was braced against the door, absorbing the thudding blows of some heavy object on the outside. “They’re knocking, so I must be going soon. I have no time for details, but I can assure you, upon my word of honor as a Winner, that there is something you can do. Only you. If you help me, we might save seven million human lives. That is a fact....”

The lock burst and the door started to open. Ihjel shouldered it back into the frame for a final instant.

“... Here is the idea I want you to consider: Why is it that the people of Anvhar in a galaxy filled with warring, hate-filled, backward planets, should be the only ones who base their entire existence on a complicated series of games?”



THIS TIME THERE WAS NO way to hold the door. Ihjel didn’t try. He stepped aside and two men stumbled into the room. He walked out behind their backs without saying a word.

“What happened? What did he do?” the doctor asked, rushing in through the ruined door. He swept a glance over the continuous recording dials at the foot of Brion’s bed. Respiration, temperature, heart, blood pressure—all were normal. The patient lay quietly and didn’t answer him.

For the rest of that day, Brion had much to think about. It was difficult. The fatigue, mixed with the tranquilizers and other drugs had softened his contact with reality. His thoughts kept echoing back and forth in his mind, unable to escape. What had Ihjel meant? What was that nonsense about Anvhar? Anvhar was that way because ... well it just was. It had come about naturally. Or had it? The planet had a very simple history.

From the very beginning there had never been anything of real commercial interest on Anvhar. Well off the interstellar trade routes, there were no minerals worth digging and transporting the immense distances to the nearest inhabited worlds. Hunting the winter beasts for their pelts was a profitable but very minor enterprise, never sufficient for mass markets. Therefore no organized attempt had ever been made to colonize the planet. In the end it had been settled completely by chance. A number of offplanet scientific groups had established observation and research stations, finding unlimited data to observe and record during Anvhar’s unusual yearly cycle. The long-duration observations encouraged the scientific workers to bring their families and, slowly but steadily, small settlements grew up. Many of the fur hunters settled there as well, adding to the small population. This had been the beginning.

Few records existed of those early days, and the first six centuries of Anvharian history were more speculation than fact. The Breakdown occurred about that time and in the galaxy-wide disruption, Anvhar had to fight its own internal battle. When the Earth Empire collapsed it was the end of more than an era. Many of the observation stations found themselves representing institutions that no longer existed. The professional hunters no longer had markets for their furs, since Anvhar possessed no interstellar ships of its own. There had been no real physical hardship involved in the Breakdown, as it affected Anvhar, since the planet was completely self sufficient. Once they had made the mental adjustment to the fact that they were now a sovereign world, not a collection of casual visitors with various loyalties, life continued unchanged. Not easy—living on Anvhar is never easy—but at least without difference on the surface.

The thoughts and attitudes of the people were however going through a great transformation. Many attempts were made to develop some form of stable society and social relationship. Again little record exists of these early trials, other than the fact of their culmination in the Twenties.

To understand the Twenties, you have to understand the unusual orbit that Anvhar tracks around its sun, 70 Ophiuchi. There are other planets in this system, all of them more or less conforming to the plane of the ecliptic. Anvhar is obviously a rogue, perhaps a captured planet of another sun. For the greatest part of its 780-day year it arcs far out from its primary, in a high-angled sweeping cometary orbit. When it returns there is a brief, hot summer of approximately eighty days before the long winter sets in once more. This severe difference in seasonal change has caused profound adaptations in the native life forms. During the winter most of the animals hibernate, the vegetable life lying dormant as spores or seeds. Some of the warm-blooded herbivores stay active in the snow-covered tropics, preyed upon by fur-insulated carnivores. Though unbelievably cold, the winter is a season of peace in comparison to the summer.

This is a time of mad growth. Plants burst into life with a strength that cracks rocks, growing fast enough for the motion to be seen. The snow fields melt into mud and within days a jungle stretches high into the air. Everything grows, swells, proliferates. Plants climb on top of plants, fighting for the life-energy of the sun. Everything is eat and be eaten, grow and thrive in the short season. Because when the first snow of winter falls again, ninety per cent of the year must pass until the next coming of warmth.

Mankind has had to adapt to the Anvharian cycle in order to stay alive. Food must be gathered and stored, enough to last out the long winter. Generation after generation had adapted until they look on the mad seasonal imbalance as something quite ordinary. The first thaw of almost-nonexistent spring triggers a wide reaching metabolic change in the humans. Layers of subcutaneous fat vanish and half-dormant sweat glands come to life. Other changes are more subtle than the temperature adjustment, but equally important. The sleep center of the brain is depressed. Short naps or a night’s rest every third or fourth day become enough. Life takes on a hectic and hysterical quality that is perfectly suited to the environment. By the time of the first frost, rapid growing crops have been raised and harvested, sides of meat either preserved or frozen in mammoth lockers. With his supreme talent of adaptability mankind has become part of the ecology and guaranteed his own survival during the long winter.

Physical survival has been guaranteed. But what about mental survival? Primitive Earth Eskimos can fall into a long doze of half-conscious hibernation. Civilized men might be able to do this, but only for the few cold months of terrestrial mid-winter. It would be impossible to do during a winter that is longer than an Earth year. With all the physical needs taken care of, boredom became the enemy of any Anvharian who was not a hunter. And even the hunters could not stay out on solitary trek all winter. Drink was one answer and violence another. Alcoholism and murder were the twin terrors of the cold season, after the Breakdown.

It was the Twenties that ended all that. When they became a part of normal life the summer was considered just an interlude between games. The Twenties were more than just a contest—they became a way of life that satisfied all the physical, competitive and intellectual needs of this unusual planet. They were a decathlon—rather a doubled decathlon—raised to its highest power, where contests in chess and poetry composition held equal place with those in ski-jumping and archery. Each year there were two planet-wide contests held, one for men and one for women. This was not an attempt at sexual discrimination, but a logical facing of facts. Inherent differences prevented fair contests—for example, it is impossible for a woman to win a large chess tournament—and this fact was recognized. Anyone could enter for any number of years, there were no scoring handicaps.

When the best man won he was really the best man. A complicated series of playoffs and eliminations kept contestants and observers busy for half the winter. They were only preliminary to the final encounter that lasted a month, and picked a single winner. That was the title he was awarded. Winner. The man—and woman—who had bested every other contestant on the entire planet and who would remain unchallenged until the following year.

Winner. It was a title to take pride in. Brion stirred weakly on his bed and managed to turn so he could look out of the window. Winner of Anvhar. His name was already slated for the history books, one of the handful of planetary heroes. School children would be studying him now, just as he had read of the Winners of the past. Weaving daydreams and imaginary adventures around Brion’s victories, hoping and fighting so some day equal them. To be a Winner was the greatest honor in the universe.

Outside, the afternoon sun shimmered weakly in a dark sky. The endless icefields soaked up the dim light, reflecting it back as a colder and harsher illumination. A single figure on skis cut a line across the empty plain; nothing else moved. The depression of the ultimate fatigue fell on Brion and everything changed, as if he looked in a mirror at a previously hidden side.

He saw suddenly—with terrible clarity—that to be a Winner was to be absolutely nothing. Like being the best flea, among all the fleas on a single dog.

What was Anvhar after all? An ice-locked planet, inhabited by a few million human fleas, unknown and unconsidered by the rest of the galaxy. There was nothing here worth fighting for, the wars after the Breakdown had left them untouched. The Anvharian had always taken pride in this—as if being so unimportant that no one else even wanted to come near you, could possibly be a source of pride. All the worlds of man grew, fought, won, lost, changed. Only on Anvhar did life repeat its sameness endlessly, like a loop of tape in a player....

Brion’s eyes were moist, he blinked. Tears!! Realization of this incredible fact wiped the maudlin pity from his mind and replaced it with fear. Had his mind snapped in the strain of the last match? These thoughts weren’t his. Self-pity hadn’t made him a Winner—why was he feeling it now? Anvhar was his universe—how could he even imagine it as a tag-end planet at the outer limb of creation? What had come over him and induced this inverse thinking.

As he thought the question, the answer appeared at the same instant. Winner Ihjel. The fat man with the strange pronouncements and probing questions. Had he cast a spell like some sorcerer—or the devil in “Faust”? No, that was pure nonsense. But he had done something. Perhaps planted a suggestion when Brion’s resistance was low. Or used subliminal vocalization like the villain in “Cerebrus Chained.” Brion could find no adequate reason on which to base his suspicions. But he knew that Ihjel was responsible.

He whistled at the sound-switch next to his pillow and the repaired communicator came to life. The duty nurse appeared in the small screen.

“The man who was here today,” Brion said, “Winner Ihjel, do you know where he is? I must contact him.”

For some reason this flustered her professional calm. The nurse started to answer, excused herself, and blanked the screen. When it lit again a man in Guard’s uniform had taken her place.

“You made an inquiry,” the Guard said, “about Winner Ihjel. We are holding him here in the hospital following the disgraceful way in which he broke into your room.”

“I have no charges to make. Will you ask him to come and see me at once?”

The Guard controlled his shock. “I’m sorry, Winner—I don’t see how we can. Dr. Caulry left specific orders that you were not to be—”

“The doctor has no control over my personal life,” Brion snapped at him. “I’m not infectious, or ill with anything more than extreme fatigue. I want to see that man. At once.”

The Guard took a deep breath, and made a quick decision. “He is on the way up now,” he said, and rung off.

“What did you do to me?” Brion asked as soon as Ihjel had entered and they were alone. “You won’t deny that you have put alien thoughts in my head?”

“No, I won’t deny it. Because the whole point of my being here is to get those ‘alien’ thoughts across to you.”

“Tell me how you did it,” Brion insisted. “I must know.”

“I’ll tell you—but there are many things you should understand first, before you decide to leave Anvhar. You must not only hear them, you will have to believe them. The primary thing, the clue to the rest, is the true nature of your life here. How do you think the Twenties originated?”

Brion carefully took a double dose of the mild stimulant he was allowed before he answered. “I don’t think,” he said, “I know. It’s a matter of historical record. The founder of the games was Giroldi, the first contest was held in 378 A.B. The Twenties have been held every year since then. They were strictly local affairs in the beginning, but were soon well established on a planet-wide scale.”

“True enough,” Ihjel said, “but you’re describing what happened. I asked you how the Twenties originated. How could any single man take a barbarian planet, lightly inhabited by half-mad hunters and alcoholic farmers, and turn it into a smooth-running social machine built around the artificial structure of the Twenties? It just can’t be done.”

“But it was done!” Brion insisted. “You can’t deny that. And there is nothing artificial about the Twenties. They are a logical way to live a life on a planet like this.”

Ihjel had to laugh, a short ironic bark. “Very logical,” he said, “but how often does logic have anything to do with the organization of social groups and governments? You’re not thinking. Put yourself in founder Giroldi’s place. Imagine that you have glimpsed the great idea of the Twenties and you want to convince others. So you walk up to the nearest louse-ridden, brawling, superstitious, booze-embalmed hunter and explain clearly. How a program of his favorite sports—things like poetry, archery and chess—can make his life that much more interesting and virtuous. You do that. But keep your eyes open and be ready for a fast draw.”

Even Brion had to smile at the absurdity of the suggestion. Of course it couldn’t happen that way. Yet, since it had happened, there must be a simple explanation.

“We can beat this back and forth all day,” Ihjel told him, “and you won’t get the right idea unless—” He broke off suddenly, staring at the communicator. The operation light had come on, though the screen stayed dark. Ihjel reached down a meaty hand and pulled loose the recently connected wires. “That doctor of yours is very curious—and he’s going to stay that way. The truth behind the Twenties is none of his business. But it’s going to be yours. You must come to realize that the life you lead here is a complete and artificial construction, developed by Societics experts and put into application by skilled field workers.”

“Nonsense!” Brion broke in. “Systems of society can’t be dreamed up and forced on people like that. Not without bloodshed and violence.”