The Status Civilization
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by Robert Sheckley
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Will Barrent had no memory of his crime ... but he found himself shipped across space to a brutal prison-planet. On Omega, his only chance to advance himself--and stay alive--is to commit an endless series of violent crimes. The average inmate's life expectancy from time of arrival is three years. Can Barrent survive, escape, and return to Earth to clear his name?
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1960 USA
eBookwise Release Date: April 2007
14 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [210 KB]
Reading time: 128-180 min.
His return to consciousness was a slow and painful process. It was a journey in which he traversed all time. He dreamed. He rose through thick layers of sleep, out of the imaginary beginnings of all things. He lifted a pseudopod from primordial ooze, and the pseudopod was him. He became an amoeba which contained his essence; then a fish marked with his own peculiar individuality; then an ape unlike all other apes. And finally, he became a man.
What kind of man? Dimly he saw himself, faceless, a beamer gripped tight on one hand, a corpse at his feet. That kind of man.
He awoke, rubbed his eyes, and waited for further memories to come.
No memories came. Not even his name.
He sat up hastily and willed memory to return. When it didn't, he looked around, seeking in his surroundings some clue to his identity.
He was sitting on a bed in a small gray room. There was a closed door on one side. On the other, through a curtained alcove, he could see a tiny lavatory. Light came into the room from some hidden source, perhaps from the ceiling itself. The room had a bed and a single chair, and nothing else.
He held his chin in his hand and closed his eyes. He tried to catalogue all his knowledge, and the implications of that knowledge. He knew that he was a man, species Homo sapiens, an inhabitant of the planet Earth. He spoke a language which he knew was English. (Did that mean that there were other languages?) He knew the commonplace names for things: room, light, chair. He possessed in addition a limited amount of general knowledge. He knew that there were many important things which he did not know, which he once had known.
Something must have happened to me.
That something could have been worse. If it had gone a little further, he might have been left a mindless creature without a language, unaware of being human, of being a man, of being of Earth. A certain amount had been left to him.
But when he tried to think beyond the basic facts in his possession, he came to a dark and horror-filled area. Do Not Enter. Exploration into his own mind was as dangerous as a journey to--what? He couldn't find an analogue, though he suspected that many existed.
I must have been sick.
That was the only reasonable explanation. He was a man with the recollection of memories. He must at one time have had that priceless wealth of recall which now he could only deduce from the limited evidence at his disposal. At one time he must have had specific memories of birds, trees, friends, family, status, a wife perhaps. Now he could only theorize about them. Once he had been able to say, this is like, or, that reminds me of. Now nothing reminded him of anything, and things were only like themselves. He had lost his powers of contrast and comparison. He could no longer analyze the present in terms of the experienced past.
This must be a hospital.
Of course. He was being cared for in this place. Kindly doctors were working to restore his memory, to replace his identity, to restore his judgment apparatus, to tell him who and what he was. It was very good of them; he felt tears of gratitude start in his eyes.
He stood up and walked slowly around his small room. He went to the door and found it locked. That locked door gave him a moment of panic which he sternly controlled. Perhaps he had been violent.
Well, he wouldn't be violent any more. They'd see. They would award him all possible patient privileges. He would speak about that with the doctor.
He waited. After a long time, he heard footsteps coming down the corridor outside his door. He sat on the edge of the cot and listened, trying to control his excitement.
The footsteps stopped beside his door. A panel slid open, and a face peered in.
"How are you feeling?" the man asked.
He walked up to the panel, and saw that the man who questioned him was dressed in a brown uniform. He had an object on his waist which could be identified, after a moment, as a weapon. This man was undoubtedly a guard. He had a blunt, unreadable face.
"Could you tell me my name?" he asked the guard.
"Call yourself 402," the guard said. "That's your cell number."
He didn't like it. But 402 was better than nothing at all. He asked the guard, "Have I been sick for long? Am I getting better?"
"Yes," the guard said, in a voice that carried no conviction. "The important thing is, stay quiet. Obey the rules. That's the best way."
"Certainly," said 402. "But why can't I remember anything?"
"Well, that's the way it goes," the guard said. He started to walk away.
402 called after him, "Wait! You can't just leave me like this, you have to tell me something. What happened to me? Why am I in this hospital?"
"Hospital?" the guard said. He turned toward 402 and grinned. "What gave you the idea this was a hospital?"
"I assumed it," 402 said.
"You assumed wrong. This is a prison."
402 remembered his dream of the murdered man. Dream or memory? Desperately he called after the guard. "What was my offense? What did I do?"
"You'll find out," the guard said.
"After we land," the guard said. "Now get ready for assembly."
He walked away. 402 sat down on the bed and tried to think. He had learned a few things. He was in a prison, and the prison was going to land. What did that mean? Why did a prison have to land? And what was an assembly? * * * *
402 had only a confused idea of what happened next. An unmeasurable amount of time passed. He was sitting on his bed, trying to piece together facts about himself. He had an impression of bells ringing. And then the door of his cell flew open.
Why was that? What did it mean?
402 walked to the door and peered into the corridor. He was very excited, but he didn't want to leave the security of his cell. He waited, and the guard came up.
"All right, now," the guard said, "No one's going to hurt you. Go straight down the corridor."
The guard pushed him gently. 402 walked down the corridor. He saw other cell doors opening, other men coming into the corridor. It was a thin stream at first; but as he continued walking, more and more men crowded into the passageway. Most of them looked bewildered, and none of them talked. The only words were from the guards:
"Move along now, keep on moving, straight ahead."
They were headed into a large circular auditorium. Looking around, 402 saw that a balcony ran around the room, and armed guards were stationed every few yards along it. Their presence seemed unnecessary; these cowed and bewildered men weren't going to stage a revolt. Still, he supposed the grim-faced guards had a symbolic value. They reminded the newly awakened men of the most important fact of their lives: that they were prisoners.
After a few minutes, a man in a somber uniform stepped out on the balcony. He held up his hand for attention, although the prisoners were already watching him fixedly. Then, though he had no visible means of amplification, his voice boomed hollowly through the auditorium.
"This is an indoctrination talk," he said. "Listen carefully and try to absorb what I am about to tell you. These facts will be very important for your existence."
The prisoners watched him. The speaker said, "All of you have, within the last hour, awakened in your cells. You have discovered that you cannot remember your former lives--not even your names. All you possess is a meager store of generalized knowledge; enough to keep you in touch with reality.
"I will not add to your knowledge. All of you, back on Earth, were vicious and depraved criminals. You were people of the worst sort, men who had forfeited any right to consideration by the State. In a less enlightened age, you would have been executed. In our age, you have been deported."
The speaker held out his hands to quiet the murmur that ran through the auditorium. He said, "All of you are criminals. And all of you have one thing in common: an inability to obey the basic obligatory rules of human society. Those rules are necessary for civilization to function. By disobeying them, you have committed crimes against all mankind. Therefore mankind rejects you. You are grit in the machinery of civilization, and you have been sent to a world where your own sort is king. Here you can make your own rules, and die by them. Here is the freedom you lusted for; the uncontained and self-destroying freedom of a cancerous growth."
The speaker wiped his forehead and glared earnestly at the prisoners. "But perhaps," he said, "a rehabilitation is possible for some of you. Omega, the planet to which we are going, is your planet, a place ruled entirely by prisoners. It is a world where you could begin again, with no prejudices against you, with a clean record! Your past lives are forgotten. Don't try to remember them. Such memories would serve only to restimulate your criminal tendencies. Consider yourselves born afresh as of the moment of awakening in your cells."
The speaker's slow, measured words had a certain hypnotic quality. 402 listened, his eyes slightly unfocused and fixed upon the speaker's pale forehead.
"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. * * * * Chapter Two
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 caught 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 our 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 nowhere. You're peons, and that means you're nothing."
He waited a moment and then said, "Now pay attention, peons. You are about to be instructed in your duties."