The little con-man's jaw sagged lower and lower, the color draining from his face. He turned, wide-eyed, to Meyerhoff, then back to the judge.
"The Chairman of the Jury," said the Judge succinctly, "will read the verdict."
The little native in the front of the jury-box popped up like a puppet on a string. "Defendant found guilty on all counts," he said.
"Defendant is guilty! The court will pronounce sentence--"
"Now wait a minute!" Zeckler was on his feet, wild-eyed. "What kind of railroad job--"
The judge blinked disappointedly at Paul Meyerhoff. "Not yet?" he asked, unhappily.
"No." Meyerhoff's hands twitched nervously. "Not yet, Your Honor. Later, Your Honor. The trial comes first."
The judge looked as if his candy had been stolen. "But you said I should call for the verdict."
"Later. You have to have the trial before you can have the verdict."
The Altairian shrugged indifferently. "Now--later--" he muttered.
"Have the prosecutor call his first witness," said Meyerhoff.
Zeckler leaned over, his face ashen. "These charges," he whispered. "They're insane!"
"Of course they are," Meyerhoff whispered back.
"But what am I going to--"
"Sit tight. Let them set things up."
"But those lies. They're liars, the whole pack of them--" He broke off as the prosecutor roared a name.
The shaggy brute who took the stand was wearing a bright purple hat which sat rakishly over one ear. He grinned the Altairian equivalent of a hungry grin at the prosecutor. Then he cleared his throat and started. "This Terran riffraff--"
"The oath," muttered the judge. "We've got to have the oath."
The prosecutor nodded, and four natives moved forward, carrying huge inscribed marble slabs to the front of the court. One by one the chunks were reverently piled in a heap at the witness's feet. The witness placed a huge, hairy paw on the cairn, and the prosecutor said, "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you--" he paused to squint at the paper in his hand, and finished on a puzzled note, "--Goddess?"
The witness removed the paw from the rock pile long enough to scratch his ear. Then he replaced it, and replied, "Of course," in an injured tone.
"Then tell this court what you have seen of the activities of this abominable wretch."
The witness settled back into the chair, fixing one eye on Zeckler's face, another on the prosecutor, and closing the third as if in meditation. "I think it happened on the fourth night of the seventh crossing of Altair II (may the Goddess cast a drought upon it)--or was it the seventh night of the fourth crossing?--" he grinned apologetically at the judge--"when I was making my way back through town toward my blessed land-plot, minding my own business, Your Honor, after weeks of bargaining for the crop I was harvesting. Suddenly from the shadow of the building, this creature--" he waved a paw at Zeckler--"stopped me in my tracks with a vicious cry. He had a weapon I'd never seen before, and before I could find my voice he forced me back against the wall. I could see by the cruel glint in his eyes that there was no warmth, no sympathy in his heart, that I was--"
"Objection!" Zeckler squealed plaintively, jumping to his feet. "This witness can't even remember what night he's talking about!"
The judge looked startled. Then he pawed feverishly through his bundle of notes. "Overruled," he said abruptly. "Continue, please."
The witness glowered at Zeckler. "As I was saying before this loutish interruption," he muttered, "I could see that I was face to face with the most desperate of criminal types, even for Terrans. Note the shape of his head, the flabbiness of his ears. I was petrified with fear. And then, helpless as I was, this two-legged abomination began to shower me with threats of evil to my blessed home, dark threats of poisoning my land unless I would tell him where he could find the resting place of our blessed Goddess--"
"I never saw him before in my life," Zeckler moaned to Meyerhoff. "Listen to him! Why should I care where their Goddess--"
Meyerhoff gave him a stony look. "The Goddess runs things around here. She makes it rain. If it doesn't rain, somebody's insulted her. It's very simple."
"But how can I fight testimony like that?"
"I doubt if you can fight it."
"But they can't prove a word of it--" He looked at the jury, who were listening enraptured to the second witness on the stand. This one was testifying regarding the butcherous slaughter of eighteen (or was it twenty-three? Oh, yes, twenty-three) women and children in the suburban village of Karzan. The pogrom, it seemed, had been accomplished by an energy weapon which ate great, gaping holes in the sides of buildings. A third witness took the stand, continuing the drone as the room grew hotter and muggier. Zeckler grew paler and paler, his eyes turning glassy as the testimony piled up. "But it's not true," he whispered to Meyerhoff.
"Of course it isn't! Can't you understand? These people have no regard for truth. It's stupid, to them, silly, a mark of low intelligence. The only thing in the world they have any respect for is a liar bigger and more skillful than they are."
Zeckler jerked around abruptly as he heard his name bellowed out. "Does the defendant have anything to say before the jury delivers the verdict?"
"Do I have--" Zeckler was across the room in a flash, his pale cheeks suddenly taking on a feverish glow. He sat down gingerly on the witness chair, facing the judge, his eyes bright with fear and excitement. "Your--Your Honor, I--I have a statement to make which will have a most important bearing on this case. You must listen with the greatest care." He glanced quickly at Meyerhoff, and back to the judge. "Your Honor," he said in a hushed voice. "You are in gravest of danger. All of you. Your lives--your very land is at stake."
The judge blinked, and shuffled through his notes hurriedly as a murmur arose in the court. "Our land?"
"Your lives, your land, everything you hold dear," Zeckler said quickly, licking his lips nervously. "You must try to understand me--" he glanced apprehensively over his shoulder "now, because I may not live long enough to repeat what I am about to tell you--"
The murmur quieted down, all ears straining in their headsets to hear his words. "These charges," he continued, "all of them--they're perfectly true. At least, they seem to be perfectly true. But in every instance, I was working with heart and soul, risking my life, for the welfare of your beautiful planet."
There was a loud hiss from the back of the court. Zeckler frowned and rubbed his hands together. "It was my misfortune," he said, "to go to the wrong planet when I first came to Altair from my homeland on Terra. I--I landed on Altair II, a grave mistake, but as it turned out, a very fortunate error. Because in attempting to arrange trading in that frightful place, I made certain contacts." His voice trembled, and sank lower. "I learned the horrible thing which is about to happen to this planet, at the hands of those barbarians. The conspiracy is theirs, not mine. They have bribed your Goddess, flattered her and lied to her, coerced her all-powerful goodness to their own evil interests, preparing for the day when they could persuade her to cast your land into the fiery furnace of a ten-year-drought--"
Somebody in the middle of the court burst out laughing. One by one the natives nudged one another, and booed, and guffawed, until the rising tide of racket drowned out Zeckler's words. "The defendant is obviously lying," roared the prosecutor over the pandemonium. "Any fool knows that the Goddess can't be bribed. How could she be a Goddess if she could?"
Zeckler grew paler. "But--perhaps they were very clever--"
"And how could they flatter her, when she knows, beyond doubt, that she is the most exquisitely radiant creature in all the Universe? And you dare to insult her, drag her name in the dirt."
The hisses grew louder, more belligerent. Cries of "Butcher him!" and "Scald his bowels!" rose from the courtroom. The judge banged for silence, his eyes angry.
"Unless the defendant wishes to take up more of our precious time with these ridiculous lies, the jury--"
"Wait! Your Honor, I request a short recess before I present my final plea."
"A few moments to collect my thoughts, to arrange my case."
The judge settled back with a disgusted snarl. "Do I have to?" he asked Meyerhoff.
Meyerhoff nodded. The judge shrugged, pointing over his shoulder to the anteroom. "You can go in there," he said.
Somehow, Zeckler managed to stumble from the witness stand, amid riotous boos and hisses, and tottered into the anteroom.
Zeckler puffed hungrily on a cigarette, and looked up at Meyerhoff with haunted eyes. "It--it doesn't look so good," he muttered.
Meyerhoff's eyes were worried, too. For some reason, he felt a surge of pity and admiration for the haggard con-man. "It's worse than I'd anticipated," he admitted glumly. "That was a good try, but you just don't know enough about them and their Goddess." He sat down wearily. "I don't see what you can do. They want your blood, and they're going to have it. They just won't believe you, no matter how big a lie you tell."
Zeckler sat in silence for a moment. "This lying business," he said finally, "exactly how does it work?"
"The biggest, most convincing liar wins. It's as simple as that. It doesn't matter how outlandish a whopper you tell. Unless, of course, they've made up their minds that you just naturally aren't as big a liar as they are. And it looks like that's just what they've done. It wouldn't make any difference to them what you say--unless, somehow, you could make them believe it."
Zeckler frowned. "And how do they regard the--the biggest liar? I mean, how do they feel toward him?"
Meyerhoff shifted uneasily. "It's hard to say. It's been my experience that they respect him highly--maybe even fear him a little. After all, the most convincing liar always wins in any transaction, so he gets more land, more food, more power. Yes, I think the biggest liar could go where he pleased without any interference."
Zeckler was on his feet, his eyes suddenly bright with excitement. "Wait a minute," he said tensely. "To tell them a lie that they'd have to believe--a lie they simply couldn't help but believe--" He turned on Meyerhoff, his hands trembling. "Do they think the way we do? I mean, with logic, cause and effect, examining evidence and drawing conclusions? Given certain evidence, would they have to draw the same conclusions that we have to draw?"
Meyerhoff blinked. "Well--yes. Oh, yes, they're perfectly logical."
Zeckler's eyes flashed, and a huge grin broke out on his sallow face. His thin body fairly shook. He started hopping up and down on one foot, staring idiotically into space. "If I could only think--" he muttered. "Somebody--somewhere--something I read."
"Whatever are you talking about?"
"It was a Greek, I think--"
Meyerhoff stared at him. "Oh, come now. Have you gone off your rocker completely? You've got a problem on your hands, man."
"No, no, I've got a problem in the bag!" Zeckler's cheeks flushed. "Let's go back in there--I think I've got an answer!"
The courtroom quieted the moment they opened the door, and the judge banged the gavel for silence. As soon as Zeckler had taken his seat on the witness stand, the judge turned to the head juryman. "Now, then," he said with happy finality. "The jury--"
"Hold on! Just one minute more."
The judge stared down at Zeckler as if he were a bug on a rock. "Oh, yes. You had something else to say. Well, go ahead and say it."
Zeckler looked sharply around the hushed room. "You want to convict me," he said softly, "in the worst sort of way. Isn't that right?"
Eyes swung toward him. The judge broke into an evil grin. "That's right."
"But you can't really convict me until you've considered carefully any statement I make in my own defense. Isn't that right?"
The judge looked uncomfortable. "If you've got something to say, go ahead and say it."
"I've got just one statement to make. Short and sweet. But you'd better listen to it, and think it out carefully before you decide that you really want to convict me." He paused, and glanced slyly at the judge. "You don't think much of those who tell the truth, it seems. Well, put this statement in your record, then." His voice was loud and clear in the still room. "All Earthmen are absolutely incapable of telling the truth."
Puzzled frowns appeared on the jury's faces. One or two exchanged startled glances, and the room was still as death. The judge stared at him, and then at Meyerhoff, then back. "But you"--he stammered. "You're"--He stopped in mid-sentence, his jaw sagging.
One of the jurymen let out a little squeak, and fainted dead away. It took, all in all, about ten seconds for the statement to soak in.
And then pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom.
"Really," said Harry Zeckler loftily, "it was so obvious I'm amazed that it didn't occur to me first thing." He settled himself down comfortably in the control cabin of the Interplanetary Rocket and grinned at the outline of Altair IV looming larger in the view screen.
Paul Meyerhoff stared stonily at the controls, his lips compressed angrily. "You might at least have told me what you were planning."
"And take the chance of being overheard? Don't be silly. It had to come as a bombshell. I had to establish myself as a liar--the prize liar of them all, but I had to tell the sort of lie that they simply could not cope with. Something that would throw them into such utter confusion that they wouldn't dare convict me." He grinned impishly at Meyerhoff. "The paradox of Epimenides the Cretan. It really stopped them cold. They knew I was an Earthmen, which meant that my statement that Earthmen were liars was a lie, which meant that maybe I wasn't a liar, in which case--oh, it was tailor-made."
"It sure was." Meyerhoff's voice was a snarl.
"Well, it made me out a liar in a class they couldn't approach, didn't it?"
Meyerhoff's face was purple with anger. "Oh, indeed it did! And it put all Earthmen in exactly the same class, too."
"So what's honor among thieves? I got off, didn't I?"
Meyerhoff turned on him fiercely. "Oh, you got off just fine. You scared the living daylights out of them. And in an eon of lying they never have run up against a short-circuit like that. You've also completely botched any hope of ever setting up a trading alliance with Altair I, and that includes uranium, too. Smart people don't gamble with loaded dice. You scared them so badly they don't want anything to do with us."
Zeckler's grin broadened, and he leaned back luxuriously. "Ah, well. After all, the Trading Alliance was your outlook, wasn't it? What a pity!" He clucked his tongue sadly. "Me, I've got a fortune in credits sitting back at the consulate waiting for me--enough to keep me on silk for quite a while, I might say. I think I'll just take a nice, long vacation."
Meyerhoff turned to him, and a twinkle of malignant glee appeared in his eyes. "Yes, I think you will. I'm quite sure of it, in fact. Won't cost you a cent, either."
Meyerhoff grinned unpleasantly. He brushed an imaginary lint fleck from his lapel, and looked up at Zeckler slyly. "That--uh--jury trial. The Altairians weren't any too happy to oblige. They wanted to execute you outright. Thought a trial was awfully silly--until they got their money back, of course. Not too much--just three million credits."
Zeckler went white. "But that money was in banking custody!"
"Is that right? My goodness. You don't suppose they could have lost those papers, do you?" Meyerhoff grinned at the little con-man. "And incidentally, you're under arrest, you know."
A choking sound came from Zeckler's throat. "Arrest!"
"Oh, yes. Didn't I tell you? Conspiring to undermine the authority of the Terran Trading Commission. Serious charge, you know. Yes, I think we'll take a nice long vacation together, straight back to Terra. And there I think you'll face a jury trial."
Zeckler spluttered. "There's no evidence--you've got nothing on me! What kind of a frame are you trying to pull?"
"A lovely frame. Airtight. A frame from the bottom up, and you're right square in the middle. And this time--" Meyerhoff tapped a cigarette on his thumb with happy finality--"this time I don't think you'll get off."
By H. Beam Piper
Was this ill-fated expedition the end of a proud, old race--or the beginning of a new one?