and get her taken by the Receivers, declaring she had
been a useless burden for far too long. But was that a ra-
tional opinion, or the apathetic consequence of the debil-
itating sickness? After so many bouts of it, anyone might
wish to get things over and done with.
“Not far now,” Firdausi whispered. “One more hill,
and we shall be on a good dry road for the rest of the
She gave a nod, but in reality scarcely heard what he
The sky was grey above; the trees around, draped
with their curious hair-like foliage, were grey-green and
still dripping from the last downpour before dawn. It
was a setting which exactly matched her depressed
Suppose they don’t take her after all? Suppose they
say Fve delayed too longthat if Fd brought her to
them a month sooner, they could have helped her, but
now it’s useless? I shall never forgive myself. Never!
The yorb drew the cart over the crest of the last hill
before their destination, and as Firdausi had promised
they found themselves on a good hard road, well beaten
down and with a top dressing of compacted gravel.
Ahead, the town loomed, much larger than the village
where she had spent her life: there must be almost a
thousand houses, she told herself.
It was hard to credit the stories of the ancients that
men had once been numbered in millions, and dwelt
among the shining stars. . .
A little distance further on, they encountered a farm
labourer backing a balky yorb into the shafts of a cart
piled high with edible roots, and he greeted them civilly.
When they explained the purpose of their errand, he
pointed towards the town.
“The Receivers aren’t yet here, but they’re expected
hourly, I believe. Good health attends my family, luck-
ily, so I made no special inquiry this time. Go to the
market squareyou’ll find others gathered who are af-
flicted as you are.”
“Many thanks,” Firdausi said, and urged their yorb
Lors Heirndall’s lip curled with utter contempt as the
first sign reached him that they were nearing the goal;
The stupidity of these people! The dirt, the disease,
the lack of hygiene! How could they be regarded as hu-
man at all when they lived like wild beasts? If this were
truly man’s “natural state”, from which only a slow
process of technical evolution had lifted him towards the
clean bright cities of galactic civilisation, it was a won-
der any progress was ever achieved.
They seemed to lack all rational system, operating by
a bunch of crude uncomprehended near-superstitions:
boiling their drinking-water, for examplefrom here, it
was possible to see the plume of steam ascending over
the local waterworks. That was presumably a diktat im-
posed by one of the original refugees who had kept his
head in the aftermath of disaster, and would have made
sense in the context of a proper sanitary code. As it
stood, it was a pointless ritual negated by the lack of de-
Still, some of the accidents of cultural evolution had
turned out to be advantageous: the institution of the Re-
ceivers of the Sick, for instance. That must have begun
as a form of quarantine and isolation for sufferers from
diseases which the rudimentary facilities of the refugees
could not cope with; it woTild have been hoped that
some at least of the patients might recover naturally, but
as a precaution they were removed from their own com-
munities to special locations.
The system had fallen almost completely into disuse,
because the staff of these quarantine areas were them-
selves successively wiped out by infections caught from
those they were trying to help. But reviving it had pro-
vided Heirndall and his men with an excellent cover for
And if it ever came to light what had been done here,
there was little chance of swift retribution. Most civilised
planets recognised the right of euthanasia for the incura-
biy sick, and provided the debate about non-interference,
yes or no, could be kept on the boil the Corps would
never dare execute summary punishment.
He found these reflections comforting to some