Mankind consisted of 128 people.
The sheer population pressure of so vast a horde had long ago filled over a dozen burrows. Bands of the Male Society occupied the outermost four of these interconnected corridors and patrolled it with their full strength, twenty-three young adult males in the prime of courage and alertness. They were stationed there to take the first shock of any danger to Mankind, they and their band captains and the youthful initiates who served them.
Eric the Only was an initiate in this powerful force. Today, he was a student warrior, a fetcher and a carrier for proven, seasoned men. But tomorrow, tomorrow....
This was his birthday. Tomorrow, he would be sent forth to Steal for Mankind. When he returned—and have no fear: Eric was swift, Eric was clever, he would return—off might go the loose loin cloths of boyhood to be replaced by the tight loin straps of a proud Male Society warrior.
He would be free to raise his voice and express his opinions in the Councils of Mankind. He could stare at the women whenever he liked, for as long as he liked, to approach them even—
He found himself wandering to the end of his band's burrow, still carrying the spear he was sharpening for his uncle. There, where a women's burrow began, several members of the Female Society were preparing food stolen from the Monster larder that very day. Each spell had to be performed properly, each incantation said just right, or it would not be fit to eat. It might even be dangerous. Mankind was indeed fortunate: plenty of food, readily available, and women who well understood the magical work of preparing it for human consumption.
And such women—such splendid creatures!
Sarah the Sickness-Healer, for example, with her incredible knowledge of what food was fit and what was unfit, her only garment a cloud of hair that alternately screened and revealed her hips and breasts, the largest in all Mankind. There was a woman for you! Over five litters she had had, two of them of maximum size.
Eric watched as she turned a yellow chunk of food around and around under the glow lamp hanging from the ceiling of the burrow, looking for she only knew what and recognizing it when she found it she only knew how. A man could really strut with such a mate.
But she was the wife of a band leader and far, far beyond him. Her daughter, though, Selma the Soft-Skinned, would probably be flattered by his attentions. She still wore her hair in a heavy bun: it would be at least a year before the Female Society would consider her an initiate and allow her to drape it about her nakedness. No, far too young and unimportant for a man on the very verge of warrior status.
Another girl caught his eye. She had been observing him for some time and smiling behind her lashes, behind her demurely set mouth. Harriet the History-Teller, the oldest daughter of Rita the Record-Keeper, who would one day succeed to her mother's office. Now there was a lovely, slender girl, her hair completely unwound in testament to full womanhood and recognized professional status.
Eric had caught these covert, barely stated smiles from her before; especially in the last few weeks, as the time for his Theft approached. He knew that if he were successful—and he had to be successful: don't dare think of anything but success!—she would look with favor on advances from him. Of course, Harriet was a redhead, and therefore, according to Mankind's traditions, unlucky. She was probably having a hard time finding a mate. But his own mother had been a redhead.
Yes, and his mother had been very unlucky indeed.
Even his father had been infected with her terrible bad luck. Still, Harriet the History-Teller was an important person in the tribe for one her age. Good-looking too. And, above all, she didn't turn away from him. She smiled at him, openly now. He smiled back.
"Look at Eric!" he heard someone call out behind him. "He's already searching for a mate. Hey, Eric! You've not even wearing straps yet. First comes the stealing. Thencomes the mating."
Eric spun around, bits of fantasy still stuck to his lips.
The group of young men lounging against the wall of his band's burrow were tossing laughter back and forth between them. They were all adults: they had all made their Theft. Socially, they were still his superiors. His only recourse was cold dignity.
"I know that," he began. "There is no mating until—"
"Until never for some people," one of the young men broke in. He rattled his spear in his hand, carelessly, proudly. "After you steal, you still have to convince a woman that you're a man. And some men have to do an awful lot of convincing. An awful lot, Eric-O."
The ball of laughter bounced back and forth again, heavier than before. Eric the Only felt his face turn bright red. How dare they remind him of his birth? On this day of all days? Here he was about to prepare himself to go forth and Steal for Mankind....
He dropped the sharpening stone into his pouch and slid his right hand back along his uncle's spear. "At least," he said, slowly and definitely, "at least, my woman will stay convinced, Roy the Runner. She won't be always open to offers from every other man in the tribe."
"You lousy little throwback!" Roy the Runner yelled. He leaped away from the rest of the band and into a crouch facing Eric, his spear tense in one hand. "You're asking for a hole in the belly! My woman's had two litters off me, two big litters. What would you have given her, you dirty singleton?"
"She's had two litters, but not off you," Eric the Only spat, holding his spear out in the guard position. "If you're the father, then the chief's blonde hair is contagious—like measles."
Roy bellowed and jabbed his spear forward. Eric parried it and lunged in his turn. He missed as his opponent leaped to one side. They circled each other, cursing and insulting, eyes only for the point of each other's spears. The other young men had scrambled a distance down the burrow to get out of their way.
A powerful arm suddenly clamped Eric's waist from behind and lifted him off his feet. He was kicked hard, so that he stumbled a half-dozen steps and fell. On his feet in a moment, the spear still in his hand, he whirled, ready to deal with this new opponent. He was mad enough to fight all Mankind.
But not Thomas the Trap-Smasher. No, not that mad.
All the tension drained out of him as he recognized the captain of his band. He couldn't fight Thomas. His uncle. And the greatest of all men. Guiltily, he walked to the niche in the wall where the band's weapons were stacked and slid his uncle's spear into its appointed place.
"What the hell's the matter with you, Roy?" Thomas was asking behind him. "Fighting a duel with an initiate? Where's your band spirit? That's all we need these days, to be cut down from six effectives to five. Save your spear for Strangers, or—if you feel very brave—for Monsters. But don't show a point in our band's burrow if you know what's good for you, hear me?"
"I wasn't fighting a duel," the Runner mumbled, sheathing his own spear. "The kid got above himself. I was punishing him."
"You punish with the haft of the spear. And anyway, this is my band and I do the punishing around here. Now move on out, all of you, and get ready for the council. I'll attend to the boy myself."
They went off obediently without looking back. The Trap-Smasher's band was famous for its discipline throughout the length and breadth of Mankind. A proud thing to be a member of it. But to be called a boy in front of the others! A boy, when he was full-grown and ready to begin stealing!
Although, come to think of it, he'd rather be called a boy than a singleton. A boy eventually became a man, but a singleton stayed a singleton forever. He put the problem to his uncle who was at the niche, inspecting the band's reserve pile of spears.
"Isn't it possible—I mean, it is possible, isn't it—that my father had some children by another woman? You told me he was one of the best thieves we ever had."
The captain of the band turned to study him, folding his arms across his chest so that biceps swelled into greatness and power. They glinted in the light of the tiny lantern bound to his forehead, the glow lantern that only fully accredited warriors might wear. After a while, the older man shook his head and said, very gently:
"Eric, Eric, forget about it, boy. He was all of those things and more. Your father was famous. Eric the Storeroom-Stormer, we called him, Eric the Laugher at Locks, Eric the Roistering Robber of all Mankind. He taught me everything I know. But he only married once. And if any other woman ever played around with him, she's been careful to keep it a secret. Now dress up those spears. You've let them get all sloppy. Butts together, that's the way, points up and even with each other."
Dutifully, Eric rearranged the bundle of armament that was his responsibility. He turned to his uncle again, now examining the knapsacks and canteens that would be carried on the expedition. "Suppose there had been another woman. My father could have had two, three, even four litters by different women. Extra-large litters too. If we could prove something like that, I wouldn't be a singleton any more. I would not be Eric the Only."
The Trap-Smasher sighed and thought for a moment. Then he pulled the spear from his back sling and took Eric's arm. He drew the youth along the burrow until they stood alone in the very center of it. He looked carefully at the exits at either end, making certain that they were completely alone before giving his reply in an unusually low, guarded voice.
"We'd never be able to prove anything like that. If you don't want to be Eric the Only, if you want to be Eric the something-else, well then, it's up to you. You have to make a good Theft. That's what you should be thinking about all the time now—your Theft. Eric, which category are you going to announce?"
He hadn't thought about it very much. "The usual one I guess. The one that's picked for most initiations. First category."
The older man brought his lips together, looking dissatisfied. "First category. Food. Well...."
Eric felt he understood. "You mean, for someone like me—an Only, who's really got to make a name for himself—I ought to announce like a real warrior? I should say I'm going to steal in the second category—Articles Useful to Mankind. Is that what my father would have done?"
"Do you know what your father would have done?"
"No. What?" Eric demanded eagerly.
"He'd have elected the third category. That's what I'd be announcing these days, if I were going through an initiation ceremony. That's what I want you to announce."
"Third category? Monster souvenirs? But no one's elected the third category in I don't know how many auld lang synes. Why should I do it?"
"Because this is more than just an initiation ceremony. It could be the beginning of a new life for all of us."
Eric frowned. What could be more than an initiation ceremony and his attainment of full thieving manhood?
"There are things going on in Mankind, these days," Thomas the Trap-Smasher continued in a strange, urgent voice. "Big things. And you're going to be a part of them. This Theft of yours—if you handle it right, if you do what I tell you, it's likely to blow the lid off everything the chief has been sitting on."
"The chief?" Eric felt confused. He was walking up a strange burrow now without a glow lamp. "What's the chief got to do with my Theft?"
His uncle examined both ends of the corridor again. "Eric, what's the most important thing we, or you, or anyone, can do? What is our life all about? What are we here for?"
"That's easy," Eric chuckled. "That's the easiest question there is. A child could answer it:
"Hit back at the Monsters," he quoted. "Drive them from the planet, if we can. Regain Earth for Mankind, if we can. But above all, hit back at the Monsters. Make them suffer as they've made us suffer. Make them know we're still here, we're still fighting. Hit back at the Monsters."
"Hit back at the Monsters. Right. Now how have we been doing that?"
Eric the Only stared at his uncle. That wasn't the next question in the catechism. He must have heard incorrectly. His uncle couldn't have made a mistake in such a basic ritual.
"We will do that," he went on in the second reply, his voice sliding into the singsong of childhood lessons, "by regaining the science and knowhow of our fore-fathers. Man was once Lord of all Creation: his science and knowhow made him supreme. Science and knowhow is what we need to hit back at the Monsters."
"Now, Eric," his uncle asked gently. "Please tell me this. What in hell is knowhow?"
That was way off. They were a full corridor's length from the normal progression of the catechism now.
"Knowhow is—knowhow is—" he stumbled over the unfamiliar verbal terrain. "Well, it's what our ancestors knew. And what they did with it, I guess. Knowhow is what you need before you can make hydrogen bombs or economic warfare or guided missiles, any of those really big weapons like our ancestors had."
"Did those weapons do them any good? Against the Monsters, I mean. Did they stop the Monsters?"
Eric looked completely blank for a moment, then brightened. Oh! He knew the way now. He knew how to get back to the catechism:
"The suddenness of the attack, the—"
"Stop it!" his uncle ordered. "Don't give me any of that garbage! The suddenness of the attack, the treachery of the Monsters—does it sound like an explanation to you? Honestly? If our ancestors were really Lords of Creation and had such great weapons, would the Monsters have been able to conquer them? I've led my band on dozens of raids, and I know the value of a surprise attack; but believe me, boy, it's only good for a flash charge and a quick getaway if you're facing a superior force. You can knock somebody down when he doesn't expect it. But if he really has more than you, he won't stay down. Right?"
"I—I guess so. I wouldn't know."
"Well, I know. I know from plenty of battle experience. The thing to remember is that once our ancestors were knocked down, they stayed down. That means their science and knowhow were not so much in the first place. And that means—" here he turned his head and looked directly into Eric's eyes—"that means the science of our ancestors wasn't worth one good damn against the Monsters, and it wouldn't be worth one good damn to us!"
Eric the Only turned pale. He knew heresy when he heard it.
His uncle patted him on the shoulder, drawing a deep breath as if he'd finally spat out something extremely unpleasant. He leaned closer, eyes glittering beneath the forehead glow lamp and his voice dropped to a fierce whisper.
"Eric. When I asked you how we've been hitting back at the Monsters, you told me what we ought to do. We haven't been doing a single thing to bother them. We don't know how to reconstruct the Ancestor-science, we don't have the tools or weapons or knowhow—whatever that is—but they wouldn't do us a bit of good even if we had them. Because they failed once. They failed completely and at their best. There's just no point in trying to put them together again."
And now Eric understood. He understood why his uncle had whispered, why there had been so much strain in this conversation. Bloodshed was involved here, bloodshed and death.
"Uncle Thomas," he whispered, in a voice that kept cracking despite his efforts to keep it whole and steady, "how long have you been an Alien-Science man? When did you leave Ancestor-Science?"
Thomas the Trap-Smasher caressed his spear before he answered. He felt for it with a gentle, wandering arm, almost unconsciously, but both of them registered the fact that it was loose and ready. His tremendous body, nude except for the straps about his loins and the light spear-sling on his back, looked as if it were preparing to move instantaneously in any direction.
He stared again from one end of the burrow to the other, his forehead lamp reaching out to the branching darkness of the exits. Eric stared with him. No one was leaning tightly against a wall and listening.
"How long? Since I got to know your father. He was in another band; naturally we hadn't seen much of each other before he married my sister. I'd heard about him, though: everyone in the Male Society had—he was a great thief. But once he became my brother-in-law, I learned a lot from him. I learned about locks, about the latest traps—and I learned about Alien-Science. He'd been an Alien-Science man for years. He converted your mother, and he converted me."
Eric the Only backed away. "No!" he called out wildly. "Not my father and mother! They were decent people—when they were killed a service was held in their name—they went to add to the science of our ancestors—"
His uncle jammed a powerful hand over his mouth.
"Shut up, you damn fool, or you'll finish us both! Of course your parents were decent people. How do you think they were killed? Your mother was with your father out in Monster territory. Have you ever heard of a woman going along with her husband on a Theft? And taking her baby with her? Do you think it was an ordinary robbery of the Monsters? They were Alien-science people, serving their faith as best they could. They died for it."
Eric looked into his uncle's eyes over the hand that covered the lower half of his face. Alien-science people ... serving their faith ... do you think it was an ordinary robbery ... they died for it!
He had never realized before how odd it was that his parents had gone to Monster territory together, a man taking his wife and the woman taking her baby!
As he relaxed, his uncle removed the gagging hand. "What kind of Theft was it that my parents died in?"
Thomas examined his face and seemed satisfied. "The kind you're going after," he said. "If you are your father's son. If you're man enough to continue the work he started. Are you?"
Eric started to nod, then found himself shrugging weakly, and finally just hung his head. He didn't know what to say. His uncle—well, his uncle was his model and his leader, and he was strong and wise and crafty. His father—naturally, he wanted to emulate his father and continue whatever work he had started. But this was his initiation ceremony, after all, and there would be enough danger merely in proving his manhood. For his initiation ceremony to take on a task that had destroyed his father, the greatest thief the tribe had ever known, and a heretical, blasphemous task at that....
"I'll try. I don't know if I can."
"You can," his uncle told him heartily. "It's been set up for you. It will be like walking through a dug burrow, Eric. All you have to face through is the council. You'll have to be steady there, no matter what. You tell the chief that you're undertaking the third category."
"But why the third?" Eric asked. "Why does it have to be Monster souvenirs?"
"Because that's what we need. And you stick to it, no matter what pressure they put on you. Remember, an initiate has the right to decide what he's going to steal. A man's first Theft is his own affair."
"But, listen, uncle—"
There was a whistle from the end of the burrow. Thomas the Trap-Smasher nodded in the direction of the signal.
"The council's beginning, boy. We'll talk later, on expedition. Now remember this: stealing from the third category is your own idea, and all your own idea. Forget everything else we've talked about. If you hit any trouble with the chief, I'll be there. I'm your sponsor, after all."
He threw an arm about his confused nephew and walked to the end of the burrow where the other members of the band waited.
The tribe had gathered in its central and largest burrow under the great, hanging glow lamps that might be used in this place alone. Except for the few sentinels on duty in the outlying corridors, all of Mankind was here. It was an awesome sight to behold.
On the little hillock known as the Royal Mound, lolled Franklin the Father of Many Thieves, Chieftain of all Mankind. He alone of the cluster of warriors displayed heaviness of belly and flabbiness of arm—for he alone had the privilege of a sedentary life. Beside the sternly muscled band leaders who formed his immediate background, he looked almost womanly; and yet one of his many titles was simply The Man.
Yes, unquestionably The Man of Mankind was Franklin the Father of Many Thieves. You could tell it from the hushed, respectful attitudes of the subordinate warriors who stood at a distance from the mound. You could tell it from the rippling interest of the women as they stood on the other side of the great burrow, drawn up in the ranks of the Female Society. You could tell it from the nervousness and scorn with which the women were watched by their leader, Ottilie, the Chieftain's First Wife. And finally, you could tell it from the faces of the children, standing in a distant, disorganized bunch. A clear majority of their faces bore an unmistakable resemblance to Franklin's.
Franklin clapped his hands, three evenly spaced, flesh-heavy wallops.
"In the name of our ancestors," he said, "and the science with which they ruled the Earth, I declare this council opened. May it end as one more step in the regaining of their science. Who asked for a council?"
"I did." Thomas the Trap-Smasher moved out of his band and stood before the chief.
Franklin nodded, and went on with the next, formal question:
"And your reason?"
"As a band leader, I call attention to a candidate for manhood. A member of my band, a spear-carrier for the required time, and an accepted apprentice in the Male Society. My nephew, Eric the Only."
As his name was sung out, Eric shook himself. Half on his own volition and half in response to the pushes he received from the other warriors, he stumbled up to his uncle and faced the chief. This, the most important moment of his life, was proving almost too much for him. So many people in one place, accredited and famous warriors, knowledgeable and attractive women, the chief himself, all this after the shattering revelations from his uncle—he was finding it hard to think clearly. And it was vital to think clearly. His responses to the next few questions had to be exactly right.
The chief was asking the first: "Eric the Only, do you apply for full manhood?"
Eric breathed hard and nodded. "I do."
"As a full man, what will be your value to Mankind?"
"I will steal for Mankind whatever it needs. I will defend Mankind against all outsiders. I will increase the possessions and knowledge of the Female Society so that the Female Society can increase the power and well-being of Mankind."
"And all this you swear to do?"
"And all this I swear to do."
The Chief turned to Eric's uncle. "As his sponsor, do you support his oath and swear that he is to be trusted?"
With just the faintest hint of sarcasm in his voice, Thomas the Trap-Smasher replied: "Yes. I support his oath and swear that he is to be trusted."
There was a rattling moment, the barest second, when the chief's eyes locked with those of the band leader. With all that was on Eric's mind at the moment, he noticed it. Then the chief looked away and pointed to the women on the other side of the burrow.
"He is accepted as a candidate by the men. Now the women must ask for proof, for only a woman's proof bestows full manhood."
The first part was over. And it hadn't been too bad. Eric turned to face the advancing leaders of the Female Society, Ottilie, the Chieftain's First Wife, in the center. Now came the part that scared him. The women's part.
As was customary at such a moment, his uncle and sponsor left him when the women came forward. Thomas the Trap-Smasher led his band to the warriors grouped about the Throne Mound. There, with their colleagues, they folded their arms across their chests and turned to watch. A man can only give proof of his manhood while he is alone; his friends cannot support him once the women approach.
It was not going to be easy, Eric realized. He had hoped that at least one of his uncle's wives would be among the three examiners: they were both kindly people who liked him and had talked to him much about the mysteries of women's work. But he had drawn a trio of hard-faced females who apparently intended to take him over the full course before they passed him.
Sarah the Sickness-Healer opened the proceedings. She circled him belligerently, hands on hips, her great breasts rolling to and fro like a pair of swollen pendulums, her eyes glittering with scorn.
"Eric the Only," she intoned, and then paused to grin, as if it were a name impossible to believe, "Eric the Singleton, Eric the one and only child of either his mother or his father. Your parents almost didn't have enough between them to make a solitary child. Is there enough in you to make a man?"
There was a snigger of appreciation from the children in the distance, and it was echoed by a few growling laughs from the vicinity of the Throne Mound. Eric felt his face and neck go red. He would have fought any man to the death for remarks like these. Any man at all. But who could lift his hand to a woman and be allowed to live? Besides, one of the main purposes of this exhibition was to investigate his powers of self-control.
"I think so," he managed to say after a long pause. "And I'm willing to prove it."
"Prove it, then!" the woman snarled. Her right hand, holding a long, sharp-pointed pin, shot to his chest like a flung spear. Eric made his muscles rigid and tried to send his mind away. That, the men had told him, was what you had to do at this moment: it was not you they were hurting, not you at all. You, your mind, your knowledge of self, were in another part of the burrow entirely, watching these painful things being done to someone else.
The pin sank into his chest for a little distance, paused, came out. It probed here, probed there; finally it found a nerve in his upper arm. There, guided by the knowledge of the Sickness-Healer, it bit and clawed at the delicate area until Eric felt he would grind his teeth to powder in the effort not to cry out. His clenched fists twisted agonizingly at the ends of his arms in a paroxysm of protest, but he kept his body still. He didn't cry out; he didn't move away; he didn't raise a hand to protect himself.
Sarah the Sickness-Healer stepped back and considered him. "There is no man here yet," she said grudgingly. "But perhaps there is the beginnings of one."
He could relax. The physical test was over. There would be another one, much later, after he had completed his theft successfully; but that would be exclusively by men as part of his proud initiation ceremony. Under the circumstances, he knew he would be able to go through it almost gaily.
Meanwhile, the women's physical test was over. That was the important thing for now. In sheer reaction, his body gushed forth sweat which slid over the bloody cracks in his skin and stung viciously. He felt the water pouring down his back and forced himself not to go limp, prodded his mind into alertness.
"Did that hurt?" he was being asked by Rita, the old crone of a Record-Keeper. There was a solicitous smile on her forty-year-old face, but he knew it was a fake. A woman as old as that no longer felt sorry for anybody. She had too many aches and pains and things generally wrong with her to worry about other people's troubles.
"A little," he said. "Not much."
"The Monsters will hurt you much more if they catch you stealing from them, do you know that? They will hurt you much more than we ever could."
"I know. But the stealing is more important than the risk I'm taking. The stealing is the most important thing a man can do."
Rita the Record-Keeper nodded. "Because you steal things Mankind needs in order to live. You steal things that the Female Society can make into food, clothing and weapons for Mankind, so that Mankind can live and flourish."
He saw the way, saw what was expected of him. "No," he contradicted her. "That's not why we steal. We live on what we steal, but we do not steal just to go on living."
"Why?" she asked blandly, as if she didn't know the answer better than any other member of the tribe. "Why do we steal? What is more important than survival?"
Here it was now. The catechism.
"To hit back at the Monsters," he began. "To drive them from the planet, if we can. Regain Earth for Mankind, if we can. But, above all, hit back at the Monsters...."
He ploughed through the long verbal ritual, pausing at the end of each part, so that the Record-Keeper could ask the proper question and initiate the next sequence.
She tried to trip him once. She reversed the order of the fifth and sixth questions. Instead of "What will we do with the Monsters when we have regained the Earth from them?" she asked, "Why can't we use the Monsters' own Alien-Science to fight the Monsters?"
Carried along by mental habit, Eric was well into the passage beginning "We will keep them as our ancestors kept all strange animals, in a place called a zoo, or we will drive them into our burrows and force them to live as we have lived," before he realized the switch and stopped in confusion. Then he got a grip on himself, sought the right answer in his memory with calmness, as his uncle's wives had schooled him to do, and began again.
"There are three reasons why we cannot ever use Alien-Science," he recited, holding up his hand with the thumb and little finger closed. "Alien-Science is non-human, Alien-Science is inhuman, Alien-Science is anti-human. First, since it is non-human," he closed his forefinger, "we cannot use it because we can never understand it. And because it is inhuman, we would never want to use it even if we could understand it. And because it is anti-human and can only be used to hurt and damage Mankind, we would not be able to use it so long as we remain human ourselves. Alien-Science is the opposite of Ancestor-Science in every way, ugly instead of beautiful, hurtful instead of helpful. When we die, Alien-Science would not bring us to the world of our ancestors, but to another world full of Monsters."
All in all, it went very well, despite the trap into which he had almost fallen.
But he couldn't help remembering the conversation with his uncle in the other burrow. As his mouth reeled off the familiar words and concepts, his mind kept wondering how the two fitted together. His uncle was Alien-Science, and, according to his uncle, so had been his parents. Did that make them non-human, inhuman, anti-human?
And what did it make him? He knew his religious duty well: he should at this moment be telling all Mankind about his uncle's horrible secret.
The whole subject was far too complicated for someone with his limited EXPERIENCE