A Matter of Faith
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by Robert A.W. Lowndes
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Among an infinite multitude of worlds, almost any type of culture is possible. But all science requires that cause and effect be related. To the fellahin culture of the worlds of Ein, no real science was possible. There was only the will of Ein. Yet Dondyke found that both their religion and their peculiar science could be horribly effective!
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, 1952 Space Science Fiction
eBookwise Release Date: January 2010
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [76 KB]
Reading time: 43-61 min.
Laird Dondyke found himself remembering that the descent to hell was easy. It was easy, too, to enter the planet Grekh; you just boarded an interworld ferry from either of the two sister-planets, Pittam or Speewry. There were no custom-houses, immigration officials, or whatever; anyone might come and go as he chose. But the similarity between Avernus and Grekh ended there.
Corey had dissented, of course. Tom Corey had been bitterly opposed to this whole business, now. It was Dondyke's own private bid for the jackpot, and what they'd faced up to now might prove easy by comparison. But if Tom was right all the way--well, he wouldn't be the first man to go to hell to bring back a woman.
The shuttle between Speewry and Grekh was a matter of a few days, just long enough for Dondyke to work up a light sweat of anxiety over Corey. They'd parted on Speewry a week ago; they would meet on Grekh, but Dondyke would have no way of knowing whether his partner had made it until the time came.
For the twentieth time, Dondyke shrugged. There was no use fretting; Tom was the level-headed one, the balance wheel of the expedition. But he couldn't help remembering that Corey had tried to veto this return to Grekh, pointing out that Dondyke could work his personal plans just as well later, after they'd returned to Earth with the film they'd come after. They had to return for the ship--but they didn't have to pull the whiskers of the Faithful by stopping at the city.
The ferry's lights flickered as the ship nosed into the bluish aura that was the atmosphere of Grekh, the most important to Earth of the three nearly-identical worlds. The planet was a globe hanging before them, swelling faintly as the aura thickened. Soon it would be a faint, pastel blue and the golden light of the sun--true gold in color--would give the feeling of entering a vast blue cavern; it was the same on all three of these worlds of Ein, bathed in this magic-seeming light.
He stood by a port, paying no heed to a knot of robed passengers, some kneeling, some standing, but all genuflecting and chanting, "Ein, Ein!" The men in the nearest group made the ritual motions with the left hand, tracing a pattern in the air with the first two fingers; farther down the ship, another, similarly-dressed group also chanted and made the same patterns, but with their forefingers only--a life-and-death trifle that distinguished the True Believers of Grekh from the Faithful of Speewry. And if any son of the third world, Pittam, were aboard, he was tracing the same pattern, and calling upon the same deity--but although he used the two fingers of his left hand, as did the True Believers of Grekh, he began the pattern at the bottom, rather than the top.
Dondyke smiled outwardly at such hair-splitting, but there was no smile inside; at this moment, it would have been comforting to have a god upon whom to call for aid--or merely to commend his resignation. No knives would flash now; on all three worlds, the moments before entering the atmosphere of Ein's planets was too sacred to mar. But afterwards, any son of Grekh might seek the blood of one from Pittam or Speewry, while all considered the Infidel fair game. Dondyke couldn't hope that none of them would recognize him.
"You're looking on death, Unbeliever!"
The Earthling turned to grin at a bulky, dark-haired man in a sloppy uniform. "You're an Infidel, too, Ferrymaster."
The other returned the grin and ran a coarse hand across the stubble on his jaw. "You forget that they need me; only Unbelievers can ply the ferries and trading ships--and navigators aren't easy come by. But you, now--from what I've heard, you might be expendable."
There was a sardonic smoothness in his tone that made the Earthling pause; nerves urged him to action. He held his breathing regular with difficulty and let his thoughts start taking form, trying to add up a fleeting impression. The Ferrymaster took a dirty toothpick out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth, while the lights began flickering again. "Sometimes the power cuts out completely when we hit atmosphere," he said too casually. "Looks as if it might happen this time."
Dondyke studied the right arm that hung too loosely. It was unusual for an Infidel not to mention his name when he met another in these worlds. And while no True Believer could operate machinery on Speewry or Pittam, even indirectly, there was a slight difference in the faith of Grekh. It might be possible for a convert ...
Dondyke's hand shot forward to seize the other's wrist. "Silence--and hold still. There's a poisoned burr on my ring--the Lord Engineer's own formula. It's fast--and no antidote known." His other hand darted up to the dark man's armpit and prodded. He grinned savagely. "No Unbeliever carries a Tool of Vengeance, Ferrymaster. So you're to kill me when you have the lights cut off, as an Act of Faith?"
The Ferrymaster shook his head and relapsed into fatalism. "All is as Ein wills. For a moment, I was afraid, but now I fear nothing. Kill me if you like. Ein has a greater punishment in store for you, ravisher!"
Ravisher! But Alanna wouldn't have betrayed him, after that last night on Grekh before he left. If she'd recognized him as an Unbeliever--but she couldn't have known him. He'd based all his plans for abducting her back to Earth on that. Still, someone had recognized him. Well, Corey had always said he'd do himself in over a woman. He couldn't regret it, whatever the cost.
The Ferrymaster suddenly spat out the toothpick, and the lights went out as if that had been a signal. Probably it was. But it caught Dondyke off guard, and he loosened his grip. The man jerked back, freeing himself. The poison had been only a lie, anyhow.
Dondyke caught himself. There was the prick of a blade against his skin. Then his arm leaped out, and he had the Ferrymaster's wrist again. It was obvious now. They'd been saving him, making no effort against him, for this private Act of Faith against him. And they might still win, unless ...
Then he had the knife, twisting it out of the other's hand with the cat-like speed that had saved him from too many jams to mention. His arm shot out, and there was a shriek from the darkness. Ein had not deemed the Ferrymaster's Faith enough, and had gathered him back to the relative.
Dondyke leaped rapidly to one side, realizing that the man might have had an aide staked out for just such a contingency. He moved two steps, and collided with another body.
Fighting in the dark wasn't his idea of fun, but he'd done it before and survived. He'd left the knife in the Ferrymaster. The other seemed unarmed, which made them equal. He began pulling the man toward him, reaching for a throat, when something was suddenly pressed into his hand. His fingers closed over the familiar form of the container of microfilm they'd stolen on Speewry. "Tom!"
"Tried to warn you, Laird." The soft whisper came as they continued the mock battle, Dondyke slipping the container into the place he'd arranged in his clothing. The words came between grunts that were not entirely simulated; the lights might go on in any instant, and the struggle had to look good. "They know you're coming back, and why."
"My party now, then. Keep out. Wait at the ship, in the desert where we first landed. Did you get this open?"
"All copied, and copy's hidden in the ship. It'll blow up if they find it."
"Good." They were locked together now, where they could talk mouth to ear. "I'll take the original to the Lord's Engineer, make a deal, get safe conduct for Alanna and me, and we go back to Earth with the copy. If I don't show in a week, go back alone--don't try to help."
"I still say chuck the whole thing, Laird. It's been too easy. We're crowding our luck."
"Maybe," Dondyke said. Then he stiffened as the ship's lights revealed them. Corey was fixed as a lean, ragged fanatic. He closed in on his partner. "Get ready for it," he whispered.
The passengers were gathered around the pair now, at a respectful distance; and though there was no question that their sympathy was with the attacker, Dondyke knew that he didn't have to fear interference. This was another Act of Faith, an individual matter wherein the Believer trusted to his skill and the will of Ein. Civil disputes never devolved into violence--before witnesses, at least--without loud preambles and thorough accusations. If the attacker were bested, this would be regarded as Ein's will; no other Believer would molest the victor before another sunrise. They'd be shocked enough to find two had already tried it on him.
He sent Corey flying across the deck, where the man suddenly seemed to slump and lie still. Dondyke went below, leaving the True Believers to their disappointment and the discovery of the dead Ferrymaster. For a while, they'd be sure Ein had willed his success--it might last long enough for him to succeed!
If not ...