II

Ihjel gave the doctors exactly one day before he went to the hospital. Brion wasn’t dead, though there had been some doubt about that the night before. Now, a full day later, he was on the mend and that was all Ihjel wanted to know. He bullied and strong-armed his way to the new Winner’s room, meeting his first stiff resistance at the door.

“You’re out of order, Winner Ihjel,” the doctor said. “And if you keep on forcing yourself in here, where you are not wanted, rank or no rank I shall be obliged to break your head.”

Ihjel had just begun to tell him, in some detail, just how slim his chances were of accomplishing that, when Brion interrupted them both. He recognized the newcomer’s voice from the final night in the barracks.

“Let him in, Dr. Caulry,” he said. “I want to meet a man who thinks there is something more important than the Twenties.”

While the doctor stood undecided, Ihjel moved quickly around him and closed the door in his flushed face. He looked down at the Winner in the bed. There was a drip plugged into each one of Brion’s arms. His eyes peered from sooty hollows; the eyeballs were a network of red veins. The silent battle he fought against death had left its mark. His square, jutting jaw now seemed all bone, as did his long nose and high cheekbones. They were prominent landmarks rising from the limp grayness of his skin. Only the erect bristle of his close-cropped hair was unchanged. He had the appearance of having suffered a long and wasting illness.

“You look like sin,” Ihjel said. “But congratulations on your victory.”

“You don’t look so very good yourself—for a Winner,” Brion snapped back. His exhaustion and sudden peevish anger at this man let the insulting words slip out. Ihjel ignored them.

But it was true, Winner Ihjel looked very little like a Winner, or even an Anvharian. He had the height and the frame all right, but it was draped in billows of fat. Rounded, soft tissue that hung loosely from his limbs and made little limp rolls on his neck and under his eyes. There were no fat men on Anvhar and it was incredible that a man so gross could ever have been a Winner. If there was muscle under the fat, it couldn’t be seen. Only his eyes appeared to still hold the strength that had once bested every man on the planet to win the annual games. Brion turned away from their burning stare, sorry now he had insulted the man without good reason. He was too sick though to bother about apologizing.

Ihjel didn’t care either. Brion looked at him again and felt the impression of things so important that himself, his insults, even the Twenties were of no more interest than dust motes in the air. It was only a fantasy of sick mind, Brion knew, and he tried to shake the feeling off. The two men stared at each other, sharing a common emotion.

The door opened soundlessly behind Ihjel and he wheeled about, moving as only an athlete of Anvhar can move. Dr. Caulry was halfway through the door, off balance. Two more men in uniform came close behind him. Ihjel’s body pushed against them, his speed and the mountainous mass of his flesh sending them back in a tangle of arms and legs. He slammed the door and locked it in their faces.

“I have to talk to you,” he said, turning back to Brion. “Privately,” he added, bending over and ripping out the communicator with a sweep of one hand.

“Get out,” Brion told him. “If I were able—”

“Well you’re not, so you’re just going to have to lie there and listen. I imagine we have about five minutes before they decide to break the door down, and I don’t want to waste any more of that. Will you come with me offworld? There’s a job that must be done, it’s my job but I’m going to need help. You’re the only one who can give me that help.

“Now refuse,” he added as Brion started to answer.

“Of course I refuse,” Brion said, feeling a little foolish and slightly angry, as if the other man had put the words into his mouth. “Anvhar is my planet—why should I leave? My life is here and so is my work. I also might add that I have just won the Twenties, I have a responsibility to remain.”

“Nonsense. I’m a Winner and I left. What you really mean is you would like to enjoy a little of the ego-inflation you have worked so hard to get. Off Anvhar no one even knows what a Winner is—much less respects one. You have to face a big universe out there and I don’t blame you for being a little frightened.”

Someone was hammering loudly on the door.

“I haven’t the strength to get angry,” Brion said hoarsely. “And I can’t bring myself to admire your ideas when they permit you to insult a man too ill to defend himself.”

“I apologize,” Ihjel said, with no hint of apology or sympathy in his voice. “But there are more desperate issues involved other than your hurt feelings. We don’t have much time now, so I want to impress you with an idea.”

“An idea that will convince me to go offplanet with you? That’s expecting a lot.”

“No, this idea won’t convince you—but thinking about it will. If you really consider it you will find a lot of your illusions shattered. Like everyone else on Anvhar you’re a Scientific Humanist with your faith firmly planted in the Twenties. You accept both of those noble institutions without an instant’s thought. All of you haven’t a single thought for the past, for the untold billions who led the bad life as mankind slowly built up the good life for you to lead. Do you ever think of all the people who suffered and died in misery and superstition while civilization was clicking forward one more slow notch?”

“Of course I don’t think about them,” Brion snapped back. “Why should I? I can’t change the past.”

“But you can change the future!” Ihjel said. “You owe something to the suffering ancestors who got you where you are today. If Scientific Humanism means anything more than plain words to you, you must possess a sense of responsibility. Don’t you want to try and pay off a bit of this debt by helping others who are just as backward and disease ridden today as great-grandfather Troglodyte ever was?”

The hammering on the door was louder, this and the drug-induced buzzing in Brion’s ears made thinking difficult. “Abstractedly I, of course, agree with you,” he said haltingly. “But you know there is nothing I can do personally without being emotionally involved. A logical decision is valueless for action without personal meaning.”

“Then we have reached the crux of the matter,” Ihjel said gently. His back was braced against the door, absorbing the thudding blows of some heavy object on the outside. “They’re knocking, so I must be going soon. I have no time for details, but I can assure you, upon my word of honor as a Winner, that there is something you can do. Only you. If you help me, we might save seven million human lives. That is a fact….”

The lock burst and the door started to open. Ihjel shouldered it back into the frame for a final instant.

“… Here is the idea I want you to consider: Why is it that the people of Anvhar in a galaxy filled with warring, hate-filled, backward planets, should be the only ones who base their entire existence on a complicated series of games?”

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