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Towbee the Mad Minstrel

Chapter 9

Towbee's audience was nearly as heterogeneous as the planet itself—as heterogeneous as his own ancestry.  It was the crowd coming out of the temple.  The Chief Speaker of the temple was terribly impressed with Towbee's talent, was continually after the minstrel to chant the verses of Sonnabend's prophesies at the services.  After a while Towbee finally agreed that his singing at the temple entrance would consist of the verses, along with Towbee's own introductions and transitions.  One day of every ten, according to law, had to include attendance at one temple service.  That law included anyone who spent more than six consecutive days on Oric, but it did not include Towbee.  Towbee was insane.

Among those lingering a moment after the service to listen to Towbee were an arachnoid from Polaris, a tripedal from the Septus Group, even a humanoid all the way from the Central Cluster somewhere.  They certainly came a long way these days to get a piece of the action.  There must have been sixty or more listeners and no more than two of the same race.  And they all very likely thought Towbee was a fool.  A mad poet.  A singer of silly songs.  A diversion from the serious work of slicing up chunks of the Galactic Arm and selling them to the highest bidder.  These petty usurers and moneychangers might think more of Towbee if they stopped to notice what he was singing:

It was old when the Guardians had mothers
And Arcturus only glowed in God's eye;
When dominion of the spaceways was another's,
When angels were the only souls to fly.

The prophesy of Sonnabend was tendered,
Bid by Him who did fold the Spiral's tips
For us whom His handiwork has rendered,
To guide us by words of prophet's lips:

When the minions of immortals spread Galactic,
When a thousand cultures dwell in Vega's glow,
When a sailing ship for starflight is a tactic,
When these things all come to pass then we will know

That a hybrid born to Vega has been spreading
Massive strength through an empire built on trade,
And a path to an Arm's rule he is treading;
'Gainst his rule need for freedom sure will fade.

But the heathens would not notice the message, only the medium.  They would toss trinkets or treasures into the minstrel's basket according to their station and wealth—this was not payment, actually, but gifts—and they would go back to work.

One of the listeners was listening.  The little gray humanoid from the Central Cluster dropped his gift into the minstrel's basket—a modest chip of rare granite—and waited for the rest of the crowd to disperse.

This planet, Oric, was becoming the economic center for this sector of the Galaxy.  The world was significantly larger than Earth, but made of lighter material.  It's gravity was consequently slightly less strong.  No one quite remembered what intelligent race, if any, was native to Oric.  The Guardians kept records of such things, but no one else was sufficiently concerned to find out.  Three of four thousand years ago by Earth measure of time—which is of dubious value among hundreds of intelligent races whose life spans vary from about twelve years to near immortality—Oric first became a hub of the expanding slave trade in the Galactic Arm.  The Arm was that sector of the Galaxy that swung out at the outer tip of the spiral of stars that was the Milky Way.  It included all the stars visible to the naked humanoid eye from Earth as well as a few more.  It was the last sector to approach the state of civilization.

There was a right and a wrong in the Universe, and that distinction was not very difficult to make.

Slavery, of course, was wrong.  This was not to say that there were not certain races or certain individuals among races who were best suited to serve the needs of others.  The concepts of right and wrong in the Universe, however, were closely tied with the concept of consistency.  Servitude as a commercial commodity is inconsistent, a contradiction in terms.  In the practice of buying and selling—or giving and getting, as it was looked at on Oric—a certain freedom of choice is implied on the part of the parties to the transaction.  Mandatory servitude does not fit in with that scheme.

No one but scholars in the Ethics of Sonnabend ever went through that thought process when wondering what was right and wrong.  Most beings simply knew.  The rules were there, had been since Sonnabend laid them down eight billion years ago.  The power of the great prophet was such that most of his principals, in some form, found their way into nearly every developed or developing culture in the Galaxy.  The principals were not always followed, but they did in fact define very clearly the difference between right and wrong.  Loosely translated into English, some of Sonnabend's ethical standards could be stated like this:

Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

No one had any reliable memory of Sonnabend himself.  There was no reliable record left of his exact origins, although there were legends.  He so transformed the Galaxy that there was no longer any concept of that the Galaxy was like before him, even among the few who were alive then.  That was probably just as well.

It was the voice of the prophet that inspired the founding of the Guardians, a collection of nine immortal humanoid males whose purpose it was to keep order in the Galaxy.  That purpose brought them to Oric and the Galactic Arm.  The Arm was the last sector of the Galaxy into which the immortals extended their active interest.  It was always in their power to come here; there was simply never anything going on here before that demanded their attention.  Only wanderers, rogue stars, were outside their jurisdiction.

The Guardians were also inveterate record-keepers.  Over eight billion years they recorded the births and deaths of stars as well as the fleeting histories of various forms of life on worlds spinning around those stars.  When the star sun Vega was born they watched; when the profusion of black holes provided intelligent beings with power for travelling beyond the speed of light they watched; when Krypton died they watched and they waited.

The little gray humanoid hovered in a corner impassively watching the mulligan stew of bodies zoom this way and that.  The minstrel's audience was dispersing, and the grinning, mustachioed, four-armed elf hopped in front of the humanoid.  This was Towbee the mad minstrel.

"You're a Malthusian, aren't you, Man?
Of anthropology I'm a fan."

The grinning leprechaun sounded preposterous in any language.  The remarkable intentional translators everyone on Oric wore around their necks like amulets decoded the intent of any speaker into the language of the listener, and since Towbee talked in the Orician equivalent of what in English is the entrancing technique called rhyming, so was it translated into whatever was the humanoid's native tongue.  The minstrel was always onstage, often jabbering and nonsensical, but always rhythmic.

"I am a native of Malthus," said the impassive face.  "You are adept at distinguishing the origins of beings of similar races?"

"A bow in the backbone of fifteen degrees,
A small ball-and-socket joint down in your knees,
Both made my conclusion one of great ease."

Towbee was sounding too intelligent, he thought.  It would be a good idea to allay the stranger's suspicions before they had a chance to form.  As he spoke he absently caused his instrument—a device capable of making cloudy images from light as well as musical sounds—to form the image of a surface with a round hole.  Over the next several minutes an imagined creature of Towbee's own design seemed to try from every conceivable angle to slide his square body into the round hole.  The forms Towbee spun were of directed light, not subject to gravitational force, but of apparently infinite mass.  They could not be moved or dispersed except by the command of one adept at playing Towbee's instrument.  It was simple for the minstrel to feign madness.  All he needed to do was appear to open his mind to those around him.

"You've traveled from Galaxy's center to here.
What brings you to Oric, a distance not near?"

"A rumor.  I am stopping off on a journey to a star on the rim.  A dwarf called Sol.  Have you heard of it?"

"I have been there myself, seen remarkable things,
Like a giant world girdled by colorful rings."

"That would be Sol-6, the reason that area is often called the System of the Rings.  You are that widely traveled within the Galactic Arm?"

"From Spiral's tip to the shores of sight
I've rode the interstellar night.
So tell me, sir, this rumor queer
That speeds you journey on to there."

"I go to the world Sol-3, called Terra by the beings who inhabit it."

"World of chaos, without plan,
And legendary Superman."

"Yes, the refugee from the destroyed world that orbited Antares.  Quite an underachiever, would you say?"

"You've dodged the question, changed our course.
Can Sol-3 hide some great resource?"

The gray being allowed his first faint smile.  Towbee could charm the thumbs off a humanoid.  "What harm could possibly come of telling one like you?  There was a brilliant Terran who died recently and it is said that he left a final mathematical discovery in a secret hideaway designed to open a generation after his death.  A generation of Terran's has since passed."

"Terrans contend with rocks and sticks,
With fossil fuels they're in a fix.
How could one of brilliant mind
Be one of those most wretched kind?"

"You have indeed been there, I see.  The discoverer was named Einstein and he was in touch with the spirit of Sonnabend.  I have heard that he left the secret of trisecting an angle."

"This is an amazing discovery then?
I fear it's importance is past my ken."

"I trusted it would be, poet."

For a bit more that a million years the Guardians had been experimenting with a standing corps of agents who acted as a sort of Galactic police force.  The Green Lantern Corps consisted of one mortal for each sector of the Galaxy—which was mapped and divided arbitrarily into geographic regions by the Guardians.  Green Lanterns were of different races, chosen for their honest and fearlessness, and were generally romantic, swashbuckling sorts of characters.  They were each equipped with uniforms which varied with their respective physiologies and a power battery whose raw energy could be focused through a charm that each carried at all times.  Humanoid Green Lanterns wore their charm as a ring.

A Green Lantern was finally appointed to patrol the sector of the Galactic Arm less than four thousand years ago in response to the atrocities perpetrated by the slave trade on Oric.  This first Green Lantern of the Arm was a humanoid from the planet that orbited Antares, called Krypton.  Not only did he manage to eliminate the slave trade, but he brought the first copies of Sonnabend's chronicles to the Arm and saw to it that a fundamentalist temple was established on Oric.  Like the greatest of leaders this Kryptonian Green Lantern joined symbol with substance.  The podium for the Chief Speaker of the temple was built out of the auction block from which slaves were sold on that spot.  The presence of the temple brought about a following of the prophet Sonnabend that was quite fanatical.  Consequently, society on Oric was among the most ritualized in the Galaxy, especially for a society so scrambled with exotic races.  It would be necessary, the Guardians knew, for these people to pay a possibly undue lip service to the letter of the Ethics until they truly understood the spirit.

The immortal Guardians were a manipulative breed, and age brought with it subtlety.  It was probably no coincidence that the Green Lantern of the sector that included most of the Galactic Arm was a humanoid from Superman's adopted world.

As the man from the center of the Galaxy ambled into the rushing crowd on this planet of great affairs he knew where his poet friend would be going next.  The little gray humanoid didn't look an eon over six billion.

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