"It can have no possible basis," said Prince Ali-Tomas. "We have no horses on Cirgamesc. None whatever."
"The veriest idle talk. Such nonsense will have no interest for your intelligent participants."
The car rolled into a square a hundred yards on a side, lined with luxuriant banana palms. Opposite was an enormous pavilion of gold and violet silk, with a dozen peaked gables casting various changing sheens. In the center of the square a twenty-foot pole supported a cage about two feet wide, three feet long, and four feet high.
Inside this cage crouched a naked man.
The car rolled past. Prince Ali-Tomas waved an idle hand. The caged man glared down from bloodshot eyes. "That," said Ali-Tomas, "is a sjambak. As you see," a faint note of apology entered his voice, "we attempt to discourage them."
"What's that metal object on his chest?"
"The mark of his trade. By that you may know all sjambak. In these unsettled times only we of the House may cover our chests--all others must show themselves and declare themselves true Singhalusi."
Murphy said tentatively, "I must come back here and photograph that cage."
Ali-Tomas smilingly shook his head. "I will show you our farms, our vines and orchards. Your participants will enjoy these; they have no interest in the dolor of an ignoble sjambak."
"Well," said Murphy, "our aim is a well-rounded production. We want to show the farmers at work, the members of the great House at their responsibilities, as well as the deserved fate of wrongdoers."
"Exactly. For every sjambak there are ten thousand industrious Singhalusi. It follows then that only one ten-thousandth part of your film should be devoted to this infamous minority."
"About three-tenths of a second, eh?"
"No more than they deserve."
"You don't know my Production Director. His name is Howard Frayberg, and ..."
Howard Frayberg was deep in conference with Sam Catlin, under the influence of what Catlin called his philosophic kick. It was the phase which Catlin feared most.
"Sam," said Frayberg, "do you know the danger of this business?"
"Ulcers," Catlin replied promptly.
Frayberg shook his head. "We've got an occupational disease to fight--progressive mental myopia."
"Speak for yourself," said Catlin.
"Consider. We sit in this office. We think we know what kind of show we want. We send out our staff to get it. We're signing the checks, so back it comes the way we asked for it. We look at it, hear it, smell it--and pretty soon we believe it: our version of the universe, full-blown from our brains like Minerva stepping out of Zeus. You see what I mean?"
"I understand the words."
"We've got our own picture of what's going on. We ask for it, we get it. It builds up and up--and finally we're like mice in a trap built of our own ideas. We cannibalize our own brains."
"Nobody'll ever accuse you of being stingy with a metaphor."
"Sam, let's have the truth. How many times have you been off Earth?"
"I went to Mars once. And I spent a couple of weeks at Aristillus Resort on the Moon."
Frayberg leaned back in his chair as if shocked. "And we're supposed to be a couple of learned planetologists!"
Catlin made grumbling noise in his throat. "I haven't been around the zodiac, so what? You sneezed a few minutes ago and I said gesundheit, but I don't have any doctor's degree."
"There comes a time in a man's life," said Frayberg, "when he wants to take stock, get a new perspective."
"Relax, Howard, relax."
"In our case it means taking out our preconceived ideas, looking at them, checking our illusions against reality."
"Are you serious about this?"
"Another thing," said Frayberg, "I want to check up a little. Shifkin says the expense accounts are frightful. But he can't fight it. When Keeler says he paid ten munits for a loaf of bread on Nekkar IV, who's gonna call him on it?"
"Hell, let him eat bread! That's cheaper than making a safari around the cluster, spot-checking the super-markets."
Frayberg paid no heed. He touched a button; a three-foot sphere full of glistening motes appeared. Earth was at the center, with thin red lines, the scheduled space-ship routes, radiating out in all directions.
"Let's see what kind of circle we can make," said Frayberg. "Gower's here at Canopus, Keeler's over here at Blue Moon, Wilbur Murphy's at Sirgamesk ..."
"Don't forget," muttered Catlin, "we got a show to put on."
"We've got material for a year," scoffed Frayberg. "Get hold of Space-Lines. We'll start with Sirgamesk, and see what Wilbur Murphy's up to."
Wilbur Murphy was being presented to the Sultan of Singhalut by the Prince Ali-Tomas. The Sultan, a small mild man of seventy, sat crosslegged on an enormous pink and green air-cushion. "Be at your ease, Mr. Murphy. We dispense with as much protocol here as practicable." The Sultan had a dry clipped voice and the air of a rather harassed corporation executive. "I understand you represent Earth-Central Home Screen Network?"
"I'm a staff photographer for the Know Your Universe! show."
"We export a great deal to Earth," mused the Sultan, "but not as much as we'd like. We're very pleased with your interest in us, and naturally we want to help you in every way possible. Tomorrow the Keeper of the Archives will present a series of charts analyzing our economy. Ali-Tomas shall personally conduct you through the fish-hatcheries. We want you to know we're doing a great job out here on Singhalut."
"I'm sure you are," said Murphy uncomfortably. "However, that isn't quite the stuff I want."
"No? Just where do your desires lie?"
Ali-Tomas said delicately. "Mr. Murphy took a rather profound interest in the sjambak displayed in the square."
"Oh. And you explained that these renegades could hold no interest for serious students of our planet?"
Murphy started to explain that clustered around two hundred million screens tuned to Know Your Universe! were four or five hundred million participants, the greater part of them neither serious nor students. The Sultan cut in decisively. "I will now impart something truly interesting. We Singhalusi are making preparations to reclaim four more valleys, with an added area of six hundred thousand acres! I shall put my physiographic models at your disposal; you may use them to the fullest extent!"
"I'll be pleased for the opportunity," declared Murphy. "But tomorrow I'd like to prowl around the valley, meet your people, observe their customs, religious rites, courtships, funerals ..."
The Sultan pulled a sour face. "We are ditch-water dull. Festivals are celebrated quietly in the home; there is small religious fervor; courtships are consummated by family contract. I fear you will find little sensational material here in Singhalut."
"You have no temple dances?" asked Murphy. "No fire-walkers, snake-charmers--voodoo?"
The Sultan smiled patronizingly. "We came out here to Cirgamesc to escape the ancient superstitions. Our lives are calm, orderly. Even the amoks have practically disappeared."
"But the sjambaks--"
"Well," said Murphy, "I'd like to visit some of these ancient cities."
"I advise against it," declared the Sultan. "They are shards, weathered stone. There are no inscriptions, no art. There is no stimulation in dead stone. Now. Tomorrow I will hear a report on hybrid soybean plantings in the Upper Kam District. You will want to be present."
Murphy's suite matched or even excelled his expectation. He had four rooms and a private garden enclosed by a thicket of bamboo. His bathroom walls were slabs of glossy actinolite, inlaid with cinnabar, jade, galena, pyrite and blue malachite, in representations of fantastic birds. His bedroom was a tent thirty feet high. Two walls were dark green fabric; a third was golden rust; the fourth opened upon the private garden.
Murphy's bed was a pink and yellow creation ten feet square, soft as cobweb, smelling of rose sandalwood. Carved black lacquer tubs held fruit; two dozen wines, liquors, syrups, essences flowed at a touch from as many ebony spigots.
The garden centered on a pool of cool water, very pleasant in the hothouse climate of Singhalut. The only shortcoming was the lack of the lovely young servitors Murphy had envisioned. He took it upon himself to repair this lack, and in a shady wine-house behind the palace, called the Barangipan, he made the acquaintance of a girl-musician named Soek Panjoebang. He found her enticing tones of quavering sweetness from the gamelan, an instrument well-loved in Old Bali. Soek Panjoebang had the delicate features and transparent skin of Sumatra, the supple long limbs of Arabia and in a pair of wide and golden eyes a heritage from somewhere in Celtic Europe. Murphy bought her a goblet of frozen shavings, each a different perfume, while he himself drank white rice-beer. Soek Panjoebang displayed an intense interest in the ways of Earth, and Murphy found it hard to guide the conversation. "Weelbrrr," she said. "Such a funny name, Weelbrrr. Do you think I could play the gamelan in the great cities, the great palaces of Earth?"
"Sure. There's no law against gamelans."
"You talk so funny, Weelbrrr. I like to hear you talk."
"I suppose you get kinda bored here in Singhalut?"
She shrugged. "Life is pleasant, but it concerns with little things. We have no great adventures. We grow flowers, we play the gamelan." She eyed him archly sidelong. "We love.... We sleep...."
Murphy grinned. "You run amok."
"No, no, no. That is no more."
"Not since the sjambaks, eh?"
"The sjambaks are bad. But better than amok. When a man feels the knot forming around his chest, he no longer takes his kris and runs down the street--he becomes sjambak."
This was getting interesting. "Where does he go? What does he do?"
"Who does he rob? What does he do with his loot?"
She leaned toward him. "It is not well to talk of them."
"The Sultan does not wish it. Everywhere are listeners. When one talks sjambak, the Sultan's ears rise, like the points on a cat."
"Suppose they do--what's the difference? I've got a legitimate interest. I saw one of them in that cage out there. That's torture. I want to know about it."
"He is very bad. He opened the monorail car and the air rushed out. Forty-two Singhalusi and Hadrasi bloated and blew up."
"And what happened to the sjambak?"
"He took all the gold and money and jewels and ran away."
"Out across Great Pharasang Plain. But he was a fool. He came back to Singhalut for his wife; he was caught and set up for all people to look at, so they might tell each other, 'thus it is for sjambaks.'"
"Where do the sjambaks hide out?"
"Oh," she looked vaguely around the room, "out on the plains. In the mountains."
"They must have some shelter--an air-dome."
"No. The Sultan would send out his patrol-boat and destroy them. They roam quietly. They hide among the rocks and tend their oxygen stills. Sometimes they visit the old cities."
"I wonder," said Murphy, staring into his beer, "could it be sjambaks who ride horses up to meet the space-ship?"
Soek Panjoebang knit her black eyebrows, as if preoccupied.
"That's what brought me out here," Murphy went on. "This story of a man riding a horse out in space."
"Ridiculous; we have no horses in Cirgamesc."
"All right, the steward won't swear to the horse. Suppose the man was up there on foot or riding a bicycle. But the steward recognized the man."
"Who was this man, pray?"
"The steward clammed up.... The name would have been just noise to me, anyway."
"I might recognize the name...."
"Ask him yourself. The ship's still out at the field."
She shook her head slowly, holding her golden eyes on his face. "I do not care to attract the attention of either steward, sjambak--or Sultan."
Murphy said impatiently. "In any event, it's not who--but how. How does the man breathe? Vacuum sucks a man's lungs up out of his mouth, bursts his stomach, his ears...."
"We have excellent doctors," said Soek Panjoebang shuddering, "but alas! I am not one of them."
Murphy looked at her sharply. Her voice held the plangent sweetness of her instrument, with additional overtones of mockery. "There must be some kind of invisible dome around him, holding in air," said Murphy.
"And what if there is?"
"It's something new, and if it is, I want to find out about it."