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The Prisoner

From: The Highest ... Treason

The two rooms were not luxurious, but MacMaine hadn't expected that
they would be. The walls were a flat metallic gray, unadorned and
windowless. The ceilings and floors were simply continuations of the
walls, except for the glow-plates overhead. One room held a small
cabinet for his personal possessions, a wide, reasonably soft bed, a
small but adequate desk, and, in one corner, a cubicle that contained
the necessary sanitary plumbing facilities.

The other room held a couch, two big easy-chairs, a low table, some
bookshelves, a squat refrigerator containing food and drink for his
occasional snacks--his regular meals were brought in hot from the main
kitchen--and a closet that contained his clothing--the insignialess
uniforms of a Kerothi officer.

No, thought Sebastian MacMaine, it was not luxurious, but neither did
it look like the prison cell it was.

There was comfort here, and even the illusion of privacy, although
there were TV pickups in the walls, placed so that no movement in
either room would go unnoticed. The switch which cut off the soft white
light from the glow plates did not cut off the infrared radiation which
enabled his hosts to watch him while he slept. Every sound was heard
and recorded.

But none of that bothered MacMaine. On the contrary, he was glad of it.
He wanted the Kerothi to know that he had no intention of escaping or
hatching any plot against them.

He had long since decided that, if things continued as they had, Earth
would lose the war with Keroth, and Sebastian MacMaine had no desire
whatever to be on the losing side of the greatest war ever fought. The
problem now was to convince the Kerothi that he fully intended to fight
with them, to give them the full benefit of his ability as a military
strategist, to do his best to win every battle for Keroth.

And that was going to be the most difficult task of all.

A telltale glow of red blinked rapidly over the door, and a soft chime
pinged in time with it.

MacMaine smiled inwardly, although not a trace of it showed on his
broad-jawed, blocky face. To give him the illusion that he was a guest
rather than a prisoner, the Kerothi had installed an announcer at the
door and invariably used it. Not once had any one of them ever simply
walked in on him.

"Come in," MacMaine said.

He was seated in one of the easy-chairs in his "living room," smoking a
cigarette and reading a book on the history of Keroth, but he put the
book down on the low table as a tall Kerothi came in through the

MacMaine allowed himself a smile of honest pleasure. To most Earthmen,
"all the Carrot-skins look alike," and, MacMaine admitted honestly to
himself, he hadn't yet trained himself completely to look beyond the
strangenesses that made the Kerothi different from Earthmen and see the
details that made them different from each other. But this was one
Kerothi that MacMaine would never mistake for any other.

"Tallis!" He stood up and extended both hands in the Kerothi fashion.
The other did the same, and they clasped hands for a moment. "How are
your guts?" he added in Kerothic.

"They function smoothly, my sibling-by-choice," answered Space General
Polan Tallis. "And your own?"

"Smoothly, indeed. It's been far too long a time since we have

The Kerothi stepped back a pace and looked the Earthman up and down.
"You look healthy enough--for a prisoner. You're treated well, then?"

"Well enough. Sit down, my sibling-by-choice." MacMaine waved toward
the couch nearby. The general sat down and looked around the apartment.

"Well, well. You're getting preferential treatment, all right. This is
as good as you could expect as a battleship commander. Maybe you're
being trained for the job."

MacMaine laughed, allowing the touch of sardonicism that he felt to be
heard in the laughter. "I might have hoped so once, Tallis. But I'm
afraid I have simply come out even. I have traded nothing for nothing."

General Tallis reached into the pocket of his uniform jacket and took
out the thin aluminum case that held the Kerothi equivalent of
cigarettes. He took one out, put it between his lips, and lit it with
the hotpoint that was built into the case.

MacMaine took an Earth cigarette out of the package on the table and
allowed Tallis to light it for him. The pause and the silence, MacMaine
knew, were for a purpose. He waited. Tallis had something to say, but
he was allowing the Earthman to "adjust to surprise." It was one of the
fine points of Kerothi etiquette.

* * * * *

A sudden silence on the part of one participant in a conversation,
under these particular circumstances, meant that something unusual was
coming up, and the other person was supposed to take the opportunity to
brace himself for shock.

It could mean anything. In the Kerothi Space Forces, a superior
informed a junior officer of the junior's forthcoming promotion by just
such tactics. But the same tactics were used when informing a person of
the death of a loved one.

In fact, MacMaine was well aware that such a period of silence was de
rigueur in a Kerothi court, just before sentence was pronounced, as
well as a preliminary to a proposal of marriage by a Kerothi male to
the light of his love.

MacMaine could do nothing but wait. It would be indelicate to speak
until Tallis felt that he was ready for the surprise.

It was not, however, indelicate to watch Tallis' face closely; it was
expected. Theoretically, one was supposed to be able to discern, at
least, whether the news was good or bad.

With Tallis, it was impossible to tell, and MacMaine knew it would be
useless to read the man's expression. But he watched, nonetheless.

In one way, Tallis' face was typically Kerothi. The orange-pigmented
skin and the bright, grass-green eyes were common to all Kerothi. The
planet Keroth, like Earth, had evolved several different "races" of
humanoid, but, unlike Earth, the distinction was not one of color.

MacMaine took a drag off his cigarette and forced himself to keep his
mind off whatever it was that Tallis might be about to say. He was
already prepared for a death sentence--even a death sentence by
torture. Now, he felt, he could not be shocked. And, rather than build
up the tension within himself to an unbearable degree, he thought about
Tallis rather than about himself.

Tallis, like the rest of the Kerothi, was unbelievably humanoid. There
were internal differences in the placement of organs, and differences
in the functions of those organs. For instance, it took two separate
organs to perform the same function that the liver performed in
Earthmen, and the kidneys were completely absent, that function being
performed by special tissues in the lower colon, which meant that the
Kerothi were more efficient with water-saving than Earthmen, since the
waste products were excreted as relatively dry solids through an
all-purpose cloaca.

But, externally, a Kerothi would need only a touch of plastic surgery
and some makeup to pass as an Earthman in a stage play. Close up, of
course, the job would be much more difficult--as difficult as a Negro
trying to disguise himself as a Swede or vice versa.

But Tallis was--

* * * * *

"I would have a word," Tallis said, shattering MacMaine's carefully
neutral train of thought. It was a standard opening for breaking the
pause of adjustment, but it presaged good news rather than bad.

"I await your word," MacMaine said. Even after all this time, he still
felt vaguely proud of his ability to handle the subtle idioms of

"I think," Tallis said carefully, "that you may be offered a commission
in the Kerothi Space Forces."

Sebastian MacMaine let out his breath slowly, and only then realized
that he had been holding it. "I am grateful, my sibling-by-choice," he

General Tallis tapped his cigarette ash into a large blue ceramic
ashtray. MacMaine could smell the acrid smoke from the alien plant
matter that burned in the Kerothi cigarette--a chopped-up inner bark
from a Kerothi tree. MacMaine could no more smoke a Kerothi cigarette
than Tallis could smoke tobacco, but the two were remarkably similar in
their effects.

The "surprise" had been delivered. Now, as was proper, Tallis would
move adroitly all around the subject until he was ready to return to it

"You have been with us ... how long, Sepastian?" he asked.

"Two and a third Kronet."

Tallis nodded. "Nearly a year of your time."

MacMaine smiled. Tallis was as proud of his knowledge of Earth
terminology as MacMaine was proud of his mastery of Kerothic.

"Lacking three weeks," MacMaine said.

"What? Three ... oh, yes. Well. A long time," said Tallis.

"The Board of Strategy asked me to tell you," Tallis continued. "After
all, my recommendation was partially responsible for the decision." He
paused for a moment, but it was merely a conversational hesitation, not
a formal hiatus.

"It was a hard decision, Sepastian--you must realize that. We have been
at war with your race for ten years now. We have taken thousands of
Earthmen as prisoners, and many of them have agreed to co-operate with
us. But, with one single exception, these prisoners have been the moral
dregs of your civilization. They have been men who had no pride of
race, no pride of society, no pride of self. They have been weak,
self-centered, small-minded, cowards who had no thought for Earth and
Earthmen, but only for themselves.

"Not," he said hurriedly, "that all of them are that way--or even the
majority. Most of them have the minds of warriors, although, I must
say, not strong warriors."

That last, MacMaine knew, was a polite concession. The Kerothi had no
respect for Earthmen. And MacMaine could hardly blame them. For three
long centuries, the people of Earth had had nothing to do but indulge
themselves in the pleasures of material wealth. It was a wonder that
any of them had any moral fiber left.

"But none of those who had any strength agreed to work with us," Tallis
went on. "With one exception. You."

"Am I weak, then?" MacMaine asked.

General Tallis shook his head in a peculiarly humanlike gesture. "No.
No, you are not. And that is what has made us pause for three years."
His grass-green eyes looked candidly into MacMaine's own. "You aren't
the type of person who betrays his own kind. It looks like a trap.
After a whole year, the Board of Strategy still isn't sure that there
is no trap."

Tallis stopped, leaned forward, and ground out the stub of his
cigarette in the blue ashtray. Then his eyes again sought MacMaine's.

"If it were not for what I, personally, know about you, the Board of
Strategy would not even consider your proposition."

"I take it, then, that they have considered it?" MacMaine asked with a

"As I said, Sepastian," Tallis said, "you have won your case. After
almost a year of your time, your decision has been justified."

MacMaine lost his grin. "I am grateful, Tallis," he said gravely. "I
think you must realize that it was a difficult decision to make."

His thoughts went back, across long months of time and longer
light-years of space, to the day when that decision had been made.

Next: The Decision

Previous: The Highest Treason

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