The Pirates of Ersatz-Twenty-Three

The Pirates of Ersatz-Twenty-Three

According to the fiction tapes, the colonized worlds of the galaxy vary wildly from each other. In cold and unromantic fact, it isn’t so. Space travel is too cheap and sol-type solar systems too numerous to justify the settlement of hostile worlds. There’s no point in trying to live where one has to put on special equipment every time he goes outdoors. There’s no reason to settle on a world where one can’t grow the kind of vegetation one’s ancestors adapted themselves to some tens of thousands of generations ago. It simply doesn’t make sense!

So the inhabited worlds of the galaxy are farther apart than they could be, perhaps, and much more alike than is necessary. But the human race has a predilection for gravity fields not too far from 980cm-sec accellerative force. We humans were designed for something like that. We prefer foodstuffs containing familiar amino compounds. Our metabolism was designed around them. And since our geneticists have learned how to put aggressiveness into the genes of terrestrial-origin plants–why nowadays they briskly overwhelm the native flora wherever they are introduced. And it’s rational to let it happen. If people are to thrive and multiply on new worlds as they are colonized, it’s more convenient to modify the worlds to fit the colonists than the colonists to fit the worlds.

Therefore Bron Hoddan encountered no remarkable features in the landscape of Darth as he rode through the deepening night. There was grass, which was not luxuriant. There were bushes, which were not unduly lush. There were trees, and birds, and various other commonplace living things whose forebears had been dumped on Darth some centuries before. The ecological system had worked itself out strictly by hit-or-miss, but the result was not unfamiliar. Save for the star-pattern overhead, Hoddan could have believed himself on some parts of Zan, or some parts of Walden, or very probably somewhere or other on Lohala or Kent or Famagusta or any other occupied world between the Rims.There was, though, the star-pattern. Hoddan tried to organize it in his mind. He knew where the sun had set, which would be west. He asked the latitude of the Darthian spaceport. Thal did not know it. He asked about major geographical features–seas and continents and so on. Thal had no ideas on the subject.

Hoddan fumed. He hadn’t worried about such things on Walden. Of course, on Walden he’d had one friend, Derec, and believed he had a sweetheart, Nedda. There he was lonely and schemed to acquire the admiration of others. He ignored the sky. Here on Darth he had no friends, but there were a number of local citizens now doubtless recovered from stun-pistol bolts and yearning to carve him up with large knives. He did not feel lonely, but the instinct to know where he was, was again in operation.

The ground was rocky and far from level. After two hours of riding on a small and wiry horse with no built-in springs, Hoddan hurt in a great many places he’d never known he owned. He and Thal rode in an indeterminate direction with an irregular scarp of low mountains silhouetted against the unfamiliar stars. A vagrant night-wind blew. Thal had said it was a three-hour ride to Don Loris’ castle. After something over two of them, he said meditatively:

“I think that if you wish to give me a present I will take it and not make a gift in return. You could give me,” he added helpfully, “your share of the plunder from our victims.”

“Why?” demanded Hoddan. “Why should I give you a present?”

“If I accepted it,” explained Thal, “and made no gift in return, I would become your retainer. Then it would be my obligation as a Darthian gentleman to ride beside you, advise, counsel, and fight in your defense, and generally to uphold your dignity.”Hoddan suspected himself of blisters in places that had no dignity about them. He said suspiciously:

“How about Don Loris? Aren’t you his retainer?”

“Between the two of us,” said Thal, “he’s stingy. His presents are not as lavish as they could be. I can make him a return-present of part of the money we won in combat. That frees me of duty to him. Then I could accept the balance of the money from you, and become a retainer of yours.”

“Oh,” said Hoddan.

“You need a retainer badly,” said Thal. “You do not know the customs here. For example, there is enmity between Don Loris and the young Lord Ghek. If the young Lord Ghek is as enterprising as he should be, some of his retainers should be lying in wait to cut our throats as we approach Don Loris’ stronghold.”

“Hm-m-m,” said Hoddan grimly. But Thal seemed undisturbed. “This system of gifts and presents sounds complicated. Why doesn’t Don Loris simply give you so much a year, or week, or whatnot?”

Thal made a shocked sound.

“That would be pay! A Darthian gentleman does not serve for pay! To offer it would be insult!” Then he said, “Listen!”

He reined in. Hoddan clumsily followed his example. After a moment or two Thal clucked to his horse and started off again.

“It was nothing,” he said regretfully. “I hoped we were riding into an ambush.”

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