Authors: Piers Anthony
There was no hope of catching the perpetrators; the deed was weeks past. Easier to inquire of the crazies themselves, who were often knowledgeable about nomad affairs but who never acted positively.
Neq, missionless until this moment, had found a mission of a sort.
The local crazy outpost was under siege. Its foolish glass windows bad been broken in, and now fragments of wood and metal furniture barred them ineffectively. The flower beds around the building had been trampled. Two unkempt warriors patrolled in semicircles at a distance, one on either side, and three more chatted around a nearby campfire.
Neq accosted the nearest of the marchers, a large sworder. "Who are you and what are you doing?"
"Beat it, punk," the man said. "This is private soil."
Neq was not young or impulsive any more. He replied calmly: "It looks to me as though you are molesting a crazy outpost. Have you any reason?"
The man drew his blade. "This is my reason. Got it clear now, shorty?"
Neq saw that the others had been alerted, and were coming at a run. They were all sworders. But he held his ground. "Are you challenging me in the circle?"
"Hey, this guy's a troublemaker!" the man cried, amused.
"Cut off his balls--if he has any!" one of the others said, approaching with weapon drawn.
Neq was assured by this time that these were noncircle outlaws: clumsy fighters who banded together informally to prey on whoever was helpless. Such wretches had never been tolerated within the crazy demesnes before, and the empire had systematically run them down and executed them. That is, they were forced to meet a capable warrior in the circle, contesting for life. There was no sense in having the crazies halt maintenance because of the actions of outlaws.
But the empire was gone now, and the weeds were encroaching. He would have no compunction about cutting down such cowards. Still, he made sure: "Give me your names."
They ringed him now. "We'll give you a bleeding gut!" the first man said, and the rest chuckled.
"Then I give you mine. I am Neq the Sword." He drew his weapon. "The first to move against me defines the circle."
"Hey--I've heard of him!" one man cried "He's dangerous! Got a tribe--"
But already the others, no students of the empire heirarchy, were closing in, thinking to overwhelm him by their dishonorable mass attack.
Neq swung into action the moment they moved. He thrust ferociously at the one directly in front, driving his point into the man's unguarded chest and yanking it out again immediately. Then he whirled the bloody blade to the left, catching the next man at the neck before he could raise his sword in defense. Such tactics would never have worked against competent warriors--but these were combat oafs. He swung right, and this man had his guard up, so that sword clanged on sword.
Neq leaped away, passing between the two bleeding men. Two remained, for the fifth had fled after recognizing him. Neq spun to face them as they looked at their fallen comrades, appalled. Novices frightened of blood!
"Take your wounded and get out of here," he snapped at them. "If I see you again, I kill you both."
They hesitated, but they were inept cowards and he knew it. He turned his back on them contemptuously and went to the outpost building. He knocked on the door.
There was no answer.
"The siege is lifted," he called. "I am Neq the Sword--Warrior of the circle. You have me in your records."
Still silence. Neq knew that the crazies kept track of all the nomad leaders, and had duplicate dossiers.
"Stand before the window," a voice called at last.
Neq walked to the shattered window. He saw that the rough sworders were stumbling away with their comrades.
"There is a Neq-sword listed," another voice said. "Ask him who his father is."
"Nem the Sword," Neq answered without waiting for the question. These crazies! "And my sister is Boma; she took Born the Dagger's band and bore two boys by him."
"We have no record of that here," the second voice said after a pause. "But it sounds authentic. Did he serve in the nomad empire of Sol of All Weapons?"
"Born? No. But if you saw my action of a moment ago, you know _I_ served."
"We have to trust him," the first voice said.
Neq returned to the door. There was the sound of laboriously shifting furniture. Keys. It opened.
Two old men stood within. They were typical crazies: cleanshaven, hair shorn, parted and combed, spectacles, white shirts with sleeves, long trousers with creases, stiff polished leather shoes. Ludicrous apparel for any type of combat. Both were shaking visibly, obviously unused to personal duress and afraid of Neq himself.
"How did you hold them off?" Neq asked, genuinely curious. A nomad in such decrepit condition would begin excavating his caim.
One crazy picked up a vaguely swordlike instrument. "This is a power drill, operating off house current. I turned it on and put it against any part of the body that entered the building. It was sickening but effective."
"And we do have weapons," the other said. "But we aren't adept at their use."
Obviously. "How long has this been going on?"
"For two days. We've had similar attacks recently, but our supply trucks were able to disperse them. This time the truck did not come."
"Probably ambushed, boarded and wrecked," Neq said. "I found three gutted hostels too. But those jackals never had the nerve to attack you before. What's the reason?"
"We don't know. Supplies have been short, and we have not been able to stock our hostels sufficiently. The nomads seem to have been making war against us."
"Not the nomads! Those were outlaws!"
They peered at him dubiously. "We don't question your values, but--"
"My values aren't hurting," Neq said. "You have evidence that regular warriors are rampaging against you?"
"It seems so."
"But that's suicidal! We are not completely dependent on the hostels, but. they do make possible a special way of life. Their sanctity has always been honored."
"So we thought. But as you have seen--"
Neq sighed. "I have seen. Well, I want you to know that I do not condone this destruction, and I'm sure most nomads' agree with me. How may I help you?"
The two exchanged timid glances. "Would you be willing to bear a message to our main depot?"
"Gladly. But the way things are going, you need protection here. If I go, you won't survive long."
"We can not desert our post," one man said sadly.
"Better that than death," Neq pointed out.
"It is a matter of principle."
He shrugged. "That's why you are called the crazies. You are crazy."
"If you will carry the message--"
"I'll take the message. But first I think I'd better see to your defenses. I can round up a few men--"
"No. We have never worked that way."
"Crazies, look," Neq exclaimed, exasperated. "If you don't work that way now, your post will surely and shortly be a smoking hole, and you buried under it. You have to take some note of reality."
"A compelling case," the man admitted. "You have obviously had tactical experience. But if we do not function according to our philosophy, we have no point in functioning at all."
Neq shook his head. "Crazy," he repeated, admiring their perverse courage. "Give me your message."
The main post was a school. The message was for one Doctor Jones, and he meant to deliver it personally to the man.
A blonde crazy girl sat at a desk as though guarding her master from intrusions. "And who is calling?" she asked, her professional eye analyzing him comprehensively. She was quite clean, and that was mildly annoying too.
"Neq the Sword."
"N E K or N E G?"
He merely stared at her.
"Oh, illiterate," she said after a moment. "Dr. Jones will see you now."
He entered the interior office and handed over the written message. The aged, balding crazy within broke the seal immediately and studied the scribbled sheet of paper. He looked grave. "I wish we had been able to install telephonic cables. So our trucks have not been getting through?" he obviously knew the answer.
"Those two men are probably dead by now," Neq said. "Crazies just won't listen to reason. I offered to protect them, but--"
"Our ways differ from yours. Otherwise we would be nomads ourselves--as many of us have been, in youth."
"You were a warrior?" Neq asked incredulously. "What weapon?"
"Sword, like you. But that was forty years ago." "Why did you give it up?" "I discovered a superior philosophy." Oh. "Well, those crazies at the outposts are dying by their philosophies. You'd better call them in." "I shall."
At least the crazy master had some sense! "Why is this happening? Attacks on your posts, hostels--it was never this way before."
"Never in your memory, perhaps. I could give you an answer, but not a completely satisfactory one." Dr. Jones sat behind his desk and made figures with his hands. He had long spindly wrinkled fingers. "We have been unable to supply the hostels properly in recent months. Normal attrition thus reduces some of these to virtual uselessness for travelers. When that happens, some men react adversely--and lacking the stability of civilization, they strike out senselessly. They are hungry, they want clothing and weapons--and none are available. They feel they have been unfairly denied."
"But why can't you supply them anymore?"
"Because our own supplies have been cut off. We are chiefly distributors; we do not manufacture the implements. We do have a number of mechanized farms--but food is only part of our service."
"You get the weapons and things from somebody else?" Neq had not realized this.
"Until recently, yes. But we have had no shipments for several months, and our own resources are practically exhausted. So we are frankly unable to provide for the nomads, with the unfortunate results you have noted."
"Didn't they tell you what happened? Your suppliers, I mean?"
"We have had ho contact Television broadcasts ceased abruptly, so there seems to have been a severe power loss. Our suppy trucks have not returned. I fear that now the very restlessness our lapse promotes is rebounding against us: a feedback effect. The situation is serious."
"Your whole hostel system will break down?"
"And, I am very much afraid, our schools and hospitals and farms. Yes. We cannot withstand the concerted attacks of so many armed men. Unless we are able to resolve this matter expeditiously, I have grave reservations about the stability of our society in its present form."
"You're saying we're all in trouble?"
Dr. Jones nodded. "You are succinct."
"What you need is someone to go find out what's wrong at the other end. Someone who can fight. If your truck drivers are like the men I met at the outpost--"
Jones nodded again.
"I'll go, if you like."
"You are most generous. But you would not be conversant with the details. We would require a written report--"
"I can't write. But I could guard a literate."
Jones sighed. "I will not claim your offer is unenticing. But it would be unethical for us to use you in this fashion. And you might have difficulty protecting a 'crazy'."
"You're right. I can't help a man who won't listen."
"So I thank you for your service in bearing this message." Jones stood up. "You are welcome to remain with us for as long as you desire. But I doubt that you are inclined toward the quiet life."
"I doubt it's quiet anymore," Neq said. "But it does differ from my--my philosophy." He put his hand on the hilt of his sword. "By this I live."
Both men glanced over to see the blonde girl in the doorway. "Yes, Miss Smith?" Dr. Jones said in his question-statement tone.
"I listened over the intercom," she said, looking rebelliously guilty. "I overheard Mr. Neg's offer--"
"Neq," Neq said, pronouncing it carefully. "Neq the Sword."
"With a Q, I'm sure," Jones said, smiling. "One of the most skilled of the nomad swordsmen today."
Neq was startled, for Dr. Jones had given no hint of his information before. But of course an ex-sworder would keep track of such things, and Neq was in the crazy records.
"I could go with him," Miss Smith said, and a flush came to her rather pretty features. "I haven't entirely forgotten the wild life--and I could make the report."
Jones looked pained. He had an excellent face for it. "My dear, this is not the type of enterprise--"
"Doctor, you know our whole structure will collapse if we don't do somethingi" she cried. "We can't go on much longer."
Neq stayed out of this debate, watching the girl. She was young but quite attractive in her animation. Her two breasts were conical under her light crazy sweater and her skirted legs were well proportioned. She was worth a man's contemplation despite her outlandish attire. He had heard that "Miss" applied to a crazy woman signified her eligibility for marriage; they used words instead of bracelets.
Jones faced Neq. "This is somewhat awkward--but she is technically correct. Our need is imperative, and she would seem to be equipped to do the job. Of course it is not incumbent on you to--"
"I can guard a woman as easily as a crazy man," Neq said. "If she'll do what I say. I can't have her standing on 'principle' when a warrior's charging us."
"I'll do what you say," she said quickly.
"My mind is not easy," Jones said. "But we do require the information. Even a negative report--which I very much fear is to be anticipated--would enable us to make positive plans to salvage a very limited sphere. If both of you are amenable--"
Neq considered more carefully. How far would he travel in a day, fettered to this doll-pretty crazy woman? She would faint at the sight of blood, surely, and collapse before they had walked sixty miles. And the ridicule he would evoke, marching with a crazy companion, any crazy, but particularly a female crazy--
"It wouldn't work," he said. And felt a certain familiar frustration, knowing that his shyness with women had as much to do with it as logic.
"It has to work," she said. "Dr. Jones can do amazing things, but only if he has exact information. If you're worried about my keeping up--we'll take a truck. And I don't have to look this way. I'm aware of your contempt. I can dress like a nomad. I'll even put on some dirt--"