Always it began with the voice, imprinted on some inner level of awareness all those weary kilometers ago. The voice had droned far above the preparation rooms, above the neural breathing of the coliseum crowd, which was like a large soft hungry entity lurking above the arena. The coliseum was never quiet, but in the dream there was no sound except the voice…

“The 95th playing of the Twelve-System Games has been one for the histories in Palikar, a discipline old before the Terran Service, which has spread with its rule

“The Ursine Worlds and Aldebaran have dominated for decades, but today, in one of the most important events, the bets are going down that Old Earth has found a champion in Baka Martin. Martin is a heavy favorite, having defeated grim Na-Saladin and Merry John French of the Terran Service…”

From the voice to the sybil-awareness — two tiny pills beneath the tongue, fire and ice, ice and fire, feeding the sybil virus hidden in his brain, speeding the neural links. The lower jaw, the teeth, numb then tender. Officials had to know, had to know, and yet no monitor had tattled, and he was once more in the unmonitored prep rooms. The numbness and the tenderness dropped from him with a dizzying rush, his pulse fluttered out of its metronomic rhythm for one erratic heartbeat, and he was ready.

“…Baka Martin, parentage unregistered, was accepted by the schools of Old Earth before his first birthday. A foundling, nothing is known of who brought him to the first home of mankind…”

Palikar, the many-colored cloak of the scholars of Manhome, had been pushed beyond that pragmatic combat science the Terran Service had employed, as it had employed so many others, in the ordering of the known galaxy to proper civility and service — or civil service, went the hoary saw — to become a way-of-life, an art-of-living, a religion.

Shepherded by a School Mother who loved her wayward charges with all the tumultuous love of a gene tree with ages of motherhood in it, dried beyond repair by an unshielded flare of atomics on her homeworld, Baka Martin had learned the mantra of Old Earth. The homeless and the poor, the weary and the unwanted — Old Earth took them, for none was otherwise available for its purposes. It took them and taught them the ancient myth of Manhome as ultimate arbiter of truth and beauty and of mercy, armed them with Palikar against the sharp edges of a sprawling and occasionally bumptious civilization, and expected respect from the stars.

Not enough. The stars, if they respected anything, respected strength, respected winning. The rules of the games were specific but known to be ignored. G’hunu from Hot ‘n Heavy held the palikar crown for five playings of the games across thirty years and dropped in his home gym, massive heart imploded by toning work, the official death certificate said. Metabolic destabilization was the growl, triggered by the sybil parasite. Other, lesser Champions dared less and escaped the final violent reaction with lesser prizes. Not completely. Never completely. The processional moved unrelentingly on…

“The contestants are in the ring. Martin seems to be slowing since Roget-Fosse cracked his upper left rib with the foul that disqualified him only 40 minutes ago. Can the rejuvenos build that bone back to the strength and flex of seven years’ conditioning in less than 20 minutes? Fennec is starting his warmup…”

Through the funnel focus of his sybil-awareness, Baka Martin saw Fennec clap his hands and start to twirl. Martin clapped his hands, and the arena began to revolve.

A growl from the waiting crowd.

“Look: Martin has stopped!

In a sudden cold sweat, Martin tried to force the cone of his awareness away from his opponent. The unaltered part of him warred against the strength of the sybil-parasite — and lost.

— I must not fight this man. He wants his medal too hard…there is death in me, his death. How do I know? How does the crowd?

For the crowd was growling steadily now, low and harsh, and it sounded…hungry.

Fennec charged. Martin moved against his will, in a leaping step that flexed his wiry body like a whip. Flex, reflex. Fennec coming with force and fury. The computer alarms shrilling, extrapolating too late what the crowd had known by instinct. Baka Martin’s foot took Fennec in the chin and nearly tore his head off.

“Good god!”

The announcer’s voice went into the upper register. The crowd gasped audibly — but in horror or delight? Computers howled for the medics…

Python woke in the med tent and knew he had been injured. He was whole now, and undamaged, but trauma-residue clung to his nerves like dried sweat. Last night, he had damaged bone and flesh in his attempt to destroy the cyborg for knowing. Just for knowing what, long unknown, had begun to be just a little bit untrue. The injuries must have opened that carefully suppressed processional of memories. Trauma recalls trauma, and all those years ago he had crushed his own bone and blood vessels with the force of the kick that destroyed Fennec.

He opened his eyes. The Medfac bulked like some alien shrine. Frigid air breathed in at the tent flap. Far off, he heard the musical ululation of a hunting falconet. The hour before dawn.

The dregs of his dream drained away. The games computers were irreversible, and faulted Fennec for overextending his charge. The growl went that the death Fennec had planned was not his own. The computers…missed…the sybil residue in Martin’s blood. Old Earth had its medal, and the rest of the games were anticlimactic.

Old Earth inherited a frisson of fear from the rest of the civilized galaxy. If a skinny castoff like Martin could be trained to fatally best the best the stars could offer, before even computers could intervene, what were they teaching in those bastard schools of theirs? And how ruthlessly might those lessons be carried out between the stars if Iron Fennec had been snuffed to prove a point?

Suspicion was rampant where powerful leaders convened, but there was insufficient data to challenge the result. To do so would be to show weakness, and weakness above all things was to be avoided between the stars.

The administration of Old Earth and the bureaucracy of the Terran Service were equal to the windfall of fear and doubt that, in a scrambling interstellar society, equaled heightened respect.

Baka Martin was not. Had they used him? Could they? Or had it been something wholly out of the dark depths of Baka Martin, orphan from a lost planet, triggered by the sybil parasite, exiled from its own homeworld, into striking back?

Python shut it off. Just shut it off. It wasn’t hard, after all these years. Next he cleansed the trauma-residue from the fresh wounds: equally simple, earliest and best of his Palikar training. And…sleep drug! He was surprised, and then realized Nail had not been present in the group beside the fire. The hunting guide was a native of this planet who earned his living jousting with the greer. He could move undetected when he chose. Nail had probably saved him further damage from a continued assault on the cyborg…

He brooded over the cyborg for a space as he cleaned out the sleep drug. There came the passing tread of the Rongor battle robot, on sentry go. Python felt a sudden surge of repugnance for man and all his creations — the polar opposite of the occasional yearning which drew him to the human campfires and companionship. He had an overwhelming urge to be off and moving. He owed nothing here, was owed nothing here.

He went, unremarked even by the Rongor.



Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.