Authors: Robert Sheckley
“A new world,” the speaker was saying. “You are reborn—but with the necessary consciousness of sin. Without it, you would be unable to combat the evil inherent in your personalities. Remember that. Remember that there is no escape and no return. Guardships armed with the latest beam weapons patrol the skies of Omega day and night. These ships are designed to obliterate anything that, rises more than five hundred feet above the surface of the planet—an invincible barrier through which no prisoner can ever pass. Accommodate yourselves to these facts. They constitute the rules which must govern your lives. Think about what I’ve said. And now stand by for landing.”
The speaker left the balcony. For a while, the prisoners simply stared at the spot where he had been. Then, tentatively, a murmur of conversation began. After a while it died away. There was nothing to talk about. The prisoners, without memory of the past, had nothing upon which to base a speculation of the future. Personalities could not be exchanged, for those personalities were newly emerged and still undefined.
They sat in silence, uncommunicative men who had been too long in solitary confinement. The guards on the balcony stood like statues, remote and impersonal. And then the faintest tremor ran through the floor of the auditorium.
The tremor came again; then it changed into a definite vibration. 402 felt heavier, as though an invisible weight were pressing against his head and shoulders.
A loudspeaker voice called out, “Attention! The ship is now landing on Omega. We will disembark shortly.”
The last vibration died away, and the floor beneath them gave a slight lurch. The prisoners, still silent and dazed, were formed into a long line and marched out of the auditorium. Flanked by guards, they went down a corridor which stretched on interminably. From it, 402 began to get some idea of the size of the ship.
Far ahead, he could see a patch of sunlight which shone brightly against the pale illumination of the corridor. His section of the long shuffling line reached the sunlight, and 402 saw that it came from an open hatchway through which the prisoners were passing.
In his turn, 402 went through the hatchway, climbed down a long stairway, and found himself on solid ground. He was standing in an open, sunlit square. Guards were forming the disembarked prisoners into files; on all sides, 402 could see a crowd of spectators watching.
A loudspeaker voice boomed, “Answer when your number is called. Your identity will now be revealed to you. Answer promptly when your number is called.”
402 felt weak and very tired. Not even his identity could interest him now. All he wanted to do was lie down, to sleep, to have a chance to think about his situation. He looked around and took casual note of the huge starcraft behind him, of the guards, the spectators. Overhead, he saw black dots moving against a blue sky. At first he thought they were birds. Then, looking closer, he saw they were guardships. He wasn’t particularly interested in them.
“Number 1! Speak out!”
“Here,” a voice answered.
“Number 1, your name is Wayn Southholder. Age 34, blood type A-L2, Index AR-431-C. Guilty of treason.”
When the voice had finished, a loud cheer came up from the crowd. They were applauding the prisoner’s traitorous actions, and welcoming him to Omega.
The names were read down the list, and 402, drowsy in the sunshine, dozed on his feet and listened to the crimes of murder, credit theft, deviationalism, and mutantism. At last his number was called.
“Number 402, your name is Will Barrent. Age 27, blood type O-L3, Index JX-221-R. Guilty of murder.”
The crowd cheered, but 402 scarcely heard them. He was trying to accustom himself to the idea of having a name. A real name instead of a number. Will Barrent. He hoped he wouldn’t forget it. He repeated the name to himself over and over again, and almost missed the last announcement from the ship’s loudspeaker.
“The new men are now released upon Omega. You will be given temporary housing at Square A-2. Be cautious and circumspect in your words and actions. Watch, listen, and learn. The law requires me to tell you that the average life expectancy on Omega is approximately three Earth years.”
It took a while for those last words to take effect on Barrent. He was still contemplating the novelty of having a name. He hadn’t considered any of the implications of being a murderer on an underworld planet.
The new prisoners were led to a row of barracks at Square A-2. There were nearly five hundred of them. They were not yet men; they were entities whose true memories extended barely an hour in time. Sitting on their bunks, the newborns looked curiously at their bodies, examined with sharp interest their hands and feet. They stared at each other, and saw their formlessness mirrored in each other’s eyes. They were not yet men; but they were not children either. Certain abstractions remained, and the ghosts of memories. Maturation came quickly, born of old habit patterns and personality traits, retained in the broken threads of their former lives on Earth.
The new men clung to the vague recollections of concepts, ideas, rules. Within a few hours, their phlegmatic blandness had begun to pass. They were becoming men now. Individuals. Out of a dazed and superficial conformity, sharp differences began to emerge. Character reasserted itself, and the five hundred began to discover what they were.
Will Barrent stood in line for a look at himself in the barracks mirror. When his turn came, he saw the reflection of a thin-faced, narrow-nosed, pleasant-looking young man with straight brown hair. The young man had a resolute, honest, unexceptional face, unmarked by any strong passion. Barrent turned away disappointed; it was the face of a stranger.
Later, examining himself more closely, he could find no scars or anything else to distinguish his body from a thousand other bodies. His hands were uncallused. He was wiry rather than muscular. He wondered what sort of work he had done on Earth.
He frowned. He wasn’t ready to accept that.
A man tapped him on the shoulder. “How you feeling?”
Barrent turned and saw a large, thick-shouldered red-haired man standing beside him.
“Pretty good,” Barrent said. “You were in line behind me, weren’t you?”
“That’s right. Number 401. Name’s Danis Foeren.”
Barrent introduced himself.
“Your crime?” Foeren asked.
Foeren nodded, looking impressed. “Me, I’m a forger. Wouldn’t think it to look at my hands.” He held out two massive paws covered with sparse red hair. “But the skill’s there. My hands remembered before any other part of me. On the ship I sat in my cell and looked at my hands. They itched. They wanted to be off and doing things. But the rest of me couldn’t remember what.”
“What did you do?” Barrent asked.
“I closed my eyes and let my hands take over,” Foeren said. “First thing I knew, they were up and picking the lock of the cell.” He held up his huge hands and looked at them admiringly. “Clever little devils!”
“Picking the lock?” Barrent asked. “But I thought you were a forger.”
“Well, now,” Foeren said, “forgery was my main line. But a pair of skilled hands can do almost anything. I suspect that I was only
for forgery; but I might also have been a safeman. My hands know too much for just a forger.”
“You’ve found out more about yourself than I have,” Barrent said. “All I have to start with is a dream.”
“Well, that’s a start,” Foeren said. “There must be ways of finding out more. The important thing is, we’re on Omega.”
“Agreed,” Barrent said sourly.
“Nothing wrong with that,” Foeren said. “Didn’t you hear what the man said? This is our planet!”
“With an average life expectancy of three Earth years,” Barrent reminded him.
“That’s probably just scare talk,” Foeren said. “I wouldn’t believe stuff like that from a guard. The big thing is, we have our own planet. You heard what they said. ‘Earth rejects us.’ Nova Earth! Who needs her? We’ve our own planet here. A whole planet, Barrent! We’re free!”
Another man said, “That’s right, friend.” He was small, furtive-eyed, and ingratiatingly friendly. “My name is Joe,” he told them. “Actually, the name is Joao; but I prefer the archaic form with its flavor of more gracious times. Gentlemen, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation, and I agree most heartily with our red-haired friend. Consider the possibilities! Earth has cast us aside? Excellent! We are better off without her. We are all equal here, free men in a free society. No uniforms, no guards, no soldiers. Just repentant former criminals who want to live in peace.”
“What did they get you for?” Barrent asked.
“They said I was a credit thief,” Joe said. “I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t remember what a credit thief is. But perhaps it’ll come back to me.”
“Maybe the authorities have some sort of memory retraining system,” Foeren said.
“Authorities?” Joe said indignantly. “What do you mean, authorities? This is
planet. We’re all equal here. By definition, there can’t be any authorities. No, friends, we left all that nonsense behind on Earth. Here we—”
He stopped abruptly. The barracks’ door had opened and a man walked in. He was evidently an older resident of Omega since he lacked the gray prison uniform. He was fat, and dressed in garish yellow and blue clothing. On a belt around his ample waist he carried a holstered pistol and a knife. He stood just inside the doorway, his hands on his hips, glaring at the new arrivals.
“Well?” he said. “Don’t you new men recognize a Quaestor? Stand up!”
None of the men moved.
The Quaestor’s face went scarlet. “I guess I’ll have to teach you a little respect.”
Even before he had taken his weapon from its holster, the new arrivals had scrambled to their feet. The Quaestor looked at them with a faintly regretful air and pushed the weapon back in its holster.
“The first thing you men better learn,” the Quaestor said, “is your status on Omega. Your status is
You’re peons, and that means you’re
He waited a moment and then said, “Now pay attention, peons. You are about to be instructed in your duties.”
“The first thing you new men should understand,” the Quaestor said, “is just exactly what you are. That’s very important. And I’ll tell you what you are. You’re
You’re the lowest of the low. You’re
There’s nothing lower except mutants, and they aren’t really human. Any questions?”
The Quaestor waited. When there were no questions, he said, “I’ve defined what
are. From that, we’ll proceed to a basic understanding of what everybody else on Omega is. First of all,
is more important than you; but some are more important than others. Next above you in rank is the Resident, who hardly counts for more than any of you, and then there’s the Free Citizen. He wears a gray finger ring of status, and his clothes are black. He isn’t important either, but he’s much more important than you. With luck, some of you may become Free Citizens.
“Next are the Privileged Classes, all distinguished by various recognition symbols according to rank—such as the golden earrings, for example, of the Hadji class. Eventually you’ll learn all the marks and prerogatives of the various ranks and degrees. I might also mention the priests. Even though they’re not of Privileged rank, they’re granted certain immunities and rights. Have I made myself clear?”
Everyone in the barracks mumbled assent. The Quaestor continued, “Now we come to the subject of deportment when meeting anyone of superior rank. As peons, you are obliged to greet a Free Citizen by his full title, in a respectful manner. With Privileged ranks such as Hadjis you speak only when spoken to, and then you stand with eyes downcast and hands clasped in front of you. You do not leave the presence of a Privileged Citizen until permission has been granted. You do not sit in his company under any circumstances. Understood? There is much more to be learned. My office of Quaestor, for example, comes under the classification of Free Citizen, but carries certain of the prerogatives of Privilege.”
The Quaestor glared at the men to make sure they understood. “This barracks is your temporary home. I have drawn up a chart to show which men sweep, which wash, and so forth. You may question me at anytime; but foolish or impertinent questions can be punished by mutilation or death. Just remember that you are the lowest of the low. If you bear that in mind, you might be able to stay alive.”
The Quaestor stood in silence for a few moments. Then he said, “Over the next few days, you’ll all be given various assignments. Some of you will go to the germanium mines, some to the fishing fleet, some will be apprenticed to various trades. In the meantime, you’re free to look around Tetrahyde.”
When the men looked blank, the Quaestor explained, “Tetrahyde is the name of the city you’re in. It’s the largest city on Omega.” He thought for a moment. “In fact, it’s the only city on Omega.”