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From CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN
Chev was not familiar with the region they were now entering. After climbing back up to the highlands beyond Doriden, the road reduced to little more than ruts in places, with occasional piles of gravel that were apparently left for filling in the muddy stretches in poor weather. The land became more open and rugged, with rocky crags and ridges of grass and shale slopes rising among between flat basins of bog land and shallow lakes hemmed in by rushes and reeds. Trees gave way to lower growths of brush and scrub inhabited by noisy populations of birds and various other small creatures that could be seen from a distance but vanished at the carriage's approach. Jerri let Nim out to meander from side to side around the carriage, every now and again running ahead to investigate something he had seen.

Of course, there were the inevitable proliferations of flora. Chev stopped the carriage to point out a clump of huge lilac blooms growing twenty yards or so from the road that must have measured three feet across. Uberg insisted on walking across to have a look at them and said they belonged to the same group as the moon flowers, possessing the characteristic collar of secondary petals that closed during the day. Chev told them it was known as the "Oracle Rose"--at least, that was what Shearer's NIAD made of it. It seemed to play a similar role in folk lore and mythology as crystal balls did on Earth, and was credited with the ability to instil visions of the future.

From the directions they had been given at Doriden, they would drop down into the valley of a west-flowing river called the Geevar before ascending again on the far side into the mountains of the Harzonne. There were settlements along the Geevar valley, and the hope had been to find accommodation of some kind there for the night. However, as late afternoon came, and they were forced to make a detour to find a ford across a stream on account of a bridge that was partly down, it became clear that they were not going to make it down into the valley before dark.

It was the time of month when there was no moon, and the broken nature of the ground they were passing over, with steep drops falling away from the roadside in places, made it too treacherous to think of continuing. As Ra-Alpha reddened and sank in the west, Chev decided on a ravine sheltered by rock walls as a suitable place to call a halt. A stream flowed through the bottom that would provide fresh water, and there was grass for the horses and brushwood that would make a fire to cook supper on and keep them warm through the short but intense night. The front boot of the carriage below the driver's box held a stock of blankets, pots, and utensils, and they had picked up provisions at Doriden sufficient to rustle up a stew with bread followed by fruits and cakes, and supplemented by a couple of flasks of Doriden's home-produced wine.

The fire attracted peculiar insects, and here and there pairs of eyes out in the darkness threw back reflections--but without whatever they belonged to venturing too close. Chev said he didn't think there would be any animals in these parts to be concerned about. Nevertheless, it would do no harm to take turns at standing watch, even though, from what he had seen, Nim would let them know soon enough of any intruders.

After they had eaten, Chev entertained for a while with tales from his seafaring interludes. Then Jerri brought up the question that had been going around in Shearer's mind earlier: How did Chev think Cyreneans felt about the thought of one day possessing the kinds of technology that the Terrans had?

Chev didn't answer at once, but seemed to think it over while using a stick to retrieve some pieces of meat that he had set by the side of the fire, and then flipping them to Nim, who was alert and restless, no doubt because of the proximity of other strange animals. Finally he replied, "Yes we think they it is all wonderful: Go to other worlds; see and talk across any distance; build machines to do lots of work." He tapped the NIDA unit that he was wearing. "And this! A hat that hears other tongues and makes voices that speak in your head. I would have said it has to be magic. But the scholars back at Doriden tell me no. So maybe one day I will understand." He looked around at the three Terrans. The boisterousness and play-acting that had attended his sailing yarns had gone, and been replaced by a seriousness that Shearer hadn't seen in him before.

"Cyreneans admire the knowledge and ability that it takes to do such things," Chev went on. "To become capable of them too would make us proud and earn much respect. But your question did not ask how we would feel about doing or being anything. It asked how we would feel about possessing the results of work performed by others." Chev shook his head. "I have heard this before about Terran ways, from people who work with Vattorix, and I still do not understand it. Is it true that simply the amount of possessions decides how the worth of a person is measured where you come from? And that people sell their freedom, even their whole lives, to outperform others in amassing possessions that they don't need?" He half-turned to wave a hand toward the two horses at the edge of the circle of light from the fire, munching from a pile of grain that he had poured out of a sack to supplement the grass. "Look there. The horses are consuming feed that was planted and grown and harvested and threshed by our friends back at Doriden, or maybe a nearby farmer. And it is right that I should value and respect the farmer for that. But your system would have me honor the horse!"

Shearer's eyes widened as he listened. This was what he had thought his whole life, but he'd had to travel to another star to hear an alien put it into such succinct words.

Chev paused. The Terrans looked at each other questioningly, but they remained silent. "Forgive me if I am being offensive," he said.

Uberg shook his head hastily. "No, not at all. What you say is right. Don't imagine that all of us agree with the way things are on Earth." He waved a hand. "Please. . . . Carry on."

"The morning that we left Soliki's," Chev said. "Before I collected the carriage, I had breakfast with some people who had been at Vattorix's the evening before, at the dinner."

"Okay." Shearer nodded.

"There was a woman there who had just arrived from Earth with the new ship in the sky. She was said to represent Earth. The principal guest sent to meet Vattorix."

"Gloria Bufort," Jerri put in. She caught Shearer's eye and rolled her own upward momentarily.

"That is she," Chev said. "She asked nothing of what Vattorix has done to earn the trust and respect that we hold for him. Neither did anyone tell of what she had done to be so exalted among Terrans. But it was implied that her status is superior to his because she occupies a larger house. How can this be? If the quality of houses is to be the measure of who should represent Earth, then why was she there and not the craftsmen who built it?" Chev opened his hands in a way that said it made no sense, and inviting an explanation if anybody had one. Evidently no-one did. "She described at some length how she and her husband own many paintings by artists who are apparently highly regarded on Earth," Chev went on. "And it is right that fine works of art should be valued, and the artists who have the talent to produced them duly honored." He shook his head, again with the look of incomprehension. "But none of the artists were present, and nothing was said in their honor. Instead, she, who has no talent, was honored for possessing them. If mere possession of goods is to be the measure of who should represent Earth, why did you not send a thief?"

A long silence persisted. Chev leaned forward to toss some more wood onto the fire. Shearer and Jerri watched the new flames brightening. Finally Uberg looked across at them from the far side. "I think we've answered the question of what kind of government they have here, anyway," he said. "It is an aristocracy. But an aristocracy based on ability. It's an aristocracy because those of inadequate talent or character are excluded from the higher ranks. But it avoids the evils that follow from the use of force to acquire material wealth, because the Cyrenean form of wealth can't be acquired that way. Neither can it be stolen. And customs and laws aren't necessary to exclude those who don't measure up. They automatically exclude themselves."

 
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