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Title: A Matter of Order

Author: Fox B. Holden

Illustrator: Virgil Finlay

Release date: May 14, 2019 [eBook #59504]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at




Balance is a fundamental law of
order. How, then, can integrity
cancel such a principle even though
the future of Mankind demands it?

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, August 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

"I don't like it at all," the tall thin man said. His name was Tharn, and he was known throughout the sprawling colony for the high-strung nervousness that was understandable enough in a youth of fifty, but hardly normal for a man of his years. You had to be careful how you talked to Tharn, even if you were Angelo, Dean of Masters, himself. "I don't like it," Tharn reiterated, with another dramatic sweep of his long bony arm, "one bit, Angelo. Look at them, circling up there."

The thin, lined face turned squarely to Angelo's own, and the large, almost protruding black eyes snapped with all the vibrant fire of the fine artistic mind that boiled constantly behind them.

Angelo turned his own eyes upward, momentarily following Tharn's still-upthrust arm. Although he did not need to look again. It was as the Second-Eldest of the colony said, of course. The slender, stylus-shaped object that reflected the golden midday sunlight in splintering shards against the almost cloudless cobalt of the sky still circled.

It would land at the edge of the great colony. Angelo knew this, Tharn knew it, the colony knew it.

Angelo turned his old eyes back upon Tharn, and the ghost of a smile plucked at his white-bearded lips. Tharn colored, suddenly aware of the incongruous picture he presented. Poised with all the drama of a Mark Antony pleading to the populace to sorrow for a Caesar, while rather mundanely bedecked in his paint-spattered working-smock! The high color in his seamed face remained, but he pursued his point as though Angelo had never smiled at all. "They won't be satisfied—"

Angelo got up from the canvas stool before his easel, and the motion itself was enough to halt Tharn in mid-sentence. There was going to be some sort of action, anyway.

"Now look," Angelo said slowly. His voice carried the measured deliberation that its rich, deep timbre complemented so harmoniously. "First of all, Tharn, if we begin showing signs of undue alarm, you know what it will do to our younger men and women. They'll be upset for weeks, and we'll have another one of those terrible Realist periods." Angelo grimaced with his incredibly bushy eyebrows. "Besides that, if you'd take a really careful look at that ship, you'd see in a moment that it's certainly of a type none of us have ever seen. We certainly cannot prevent its landing. We certainly do not have the means to present a hostile front when it does. Therefore, we shall go to the Dell and greet it. I would estimate—" Angelo turned his massive, white head slowly for another glance above the low, alabaster walls of the mosaic-tiled court-yard, "that they will effect a landing within another ten minutes or so. If you'll send an apprentice to go fetch Maler, the Philosopher, and Ghezi, the Semanticist, and—and I think Ojar, the Orator, with word to meet us by the Lesser Amphitheater there, we can be on our way directly. Oh—and Tharn—"

Tharn followed the First-Elder's glance to his paint-smeared smock, colored once more, and immediately erupted into a volcano of action, as though rounding up a young jack-a-napes apprentice and locating and donning a suitable street toga were things that could be simultaneously accomplished.

He exited, mumbling heatedly between cries of "Boy! Boy!" and Angelo smiled again, and prepared his own person for the meeting. He mused that Maler, the Philosopher, commented often in his evening wine that to run was never to escape, only to change the pattern of pursuit, and of course you couldn't argue much with Maler. Not and win,—but then, nobody on Ste. Catherine very often argued to win. Where was the pleasure in that?

There was a great, scorched spot in the soft greenness of the gently-rolling earth, and it widened like an undammed, muddy pool as the thundering, cylinder of steel lowered itself on a pillar of flame.

They kept a respectable distance; Angelo, Tharn, Maler, Ghezi, Ojar, and the several hundred curious and apprehensive of the colony who had followed. Angelo had decided the closest possible spot for waiting, stopped there, and then made no move save to shield his eyes from the terrible glare of the ship's landing-jets as it made its cautious descent. As he had predicted, the chosen landing-spot was at the extreme northern edge of the Dell, near the Lesser Amphitheater. And they had all just arrived in time.

The ship settled; its thunder ceased.

Masters, Students, and apprentices alike unshielded their eyes, and then all were turned in unbroken silence toward Angelo himself. He was Dean. He could deal with this.

Angelo hesitated for perhaps a full minute. In that time he ordered the scene in his mind; the ship from Space, thrust upward toward the heavens like some weapon of challenge, surrounded by the gentle undulations of the low Renoir range to the far west; the rugged, ice-capped Alps of Cezanne to the south and further distant still; the low, wind-tossed and wild Van Gogh Plain that stretched endlessly to the east, and finally to the north, the fertile richness of the Valleys of Rembrandt which reached as far as the eye could see.

All this, and the warmth of the clear atmosphere that embraced it all was seen and felt in that minute—by Angelo, and by the rest, as he intended they should. This, the minute seemed to say, is yours. Do not betray it.

And then he was walking with the dignified deliberation of his office toward the ship, the pure white of his full toga billowing gently in the soft breezes of the Dell.

There was a clanging sound. A round section of the ship, near the wide fins of its stern, swung open; men came through it, started down a series of metal rungs to the ground. As he walked, Angelo counted them—one; two; three. Three men.

Three men from Earth, of course.

And he knew what they wanted.

They met halfway; three men from Earth in their blue-and-silver uniforms, their heads close-shaven, their boots polished as though fashioned of metal ... and Angelo, inches shorter than they, far greater in girth than they, with his feet in hide sandals, and his long white hair falling free to merge with the rolling folds of his single garment.

The man in the middle of the uniformed trio spoke; the obvious leader.

"This is the—the Colony of Artists, Planet of Ste. Catherine?" The heavy sound of his voice seemed to balk at the words ever so slightly. "You are their leader?"

"I am Angelo, Dean of Masters here," Angelo replied. "I do not lead, but guide, instead. I am at your service, gentlemen of Earth."

"You seem certain of where we are from."

"But of course—do I not immediately recognize and speak your tongue?"

"You would, of course," the leader said, and Angelo did not miss the hint of grudging acknowledgement in his voice as he said it. In face he was little different than the other two, although perhaps a year or two older. But for all practical purposes they were the same—the high foreheads, the too-closely-spaced blue eyes, the sharp, disciplined features, the lack of any genuine character at all. They were as much of the same bolt of cloth as the uniforms they wore.

"Of course," Angelo smiled. "Our memories here on Ste. Catherine are fortunately long, and our libraries are well-filled—and well-used! And of course we have been expecting you."

"Expecting us?"

"Naturally," and again Angelo smiled. "It is a philosophical truth after all—Man is a social creature by nature, and as such, must continually seek the company of his own kind. And of course," and there was the hint of a repressed glitter in the old man's eyes, "the people of Earth have always known, and have—have never forgotten where we of Ste. Catherine were to be found."

The leader reddened and seemed on the point of explosive speech, and the muscles of his jaw hardened as he controlled his impulse. Angelo waited.

"You are of course—correct," he said after a moment's pause. "And it will perhaps be best for all that we understand each other clearly from the beginning. We come to you in some embarrassment, we come to you asking a favor." The last word the leader uttered with a distaste that the best of his self-discipline could not control, and Angelo chuckled inwardly. A favor, was it? Embarrassed, were they? He could quite imagine!

"Perhaps," Angelo said, "it would be more comfortable to discuss your mission in my studio. Will you gentlemen follow me, please?"

He turned and began walking back to where the others waited, and the three men from Earth followed him. At first they balked for the briefest moment, but they followed him.

The studio of Angelo, Dean of Masters, was open to the sky like his court-yard, for this was the fair season on Ste. Catherine in this latitude, and not yet time to draw the transparent tarpaulin skylight across the tops of the studio walls. Angelo had seated himself near the center of the superbly-muraled room, on one of the low, colorful cushions so widely preferred in the colony to the more formal furniture that was still to be found, to some extent, in the shops and homes of the artisans. Artists in their own way, of course—and some practical work had to be put up with to satisfy the more mundane requirements of existence. As long as they took true pride in the beauty of their work, the artisans would always be very welcome members of the colony—as well, to be sure, as necessary.

And seated in a semi-circle behind Angelo were the other Elders, and two or three advanced Students to cater to whatever needs might arise during the conference. There would be no apprentices here! Before Angelo, taking to their cushions rather awkwardly (his beard, fortunately, was of sufficient luxuriance to cloak the tiny smile of satisfaction at his lips!) were the three Earthmen; their leader, of course, in the center and facing Angelo directly.

"We may begin at any time," Angelo said in his most courtly fashion. Those behind him nodded—Tharn for once a little absently, because he had become involved in a rather difficult line-sketch on the tablet supplied him for note-taking. He didn't approve of these strangers, but there were more important things than interstellar visitors, especially since they were only Earthmen, and Angelo was insisting on taking full charge. He, Tharn, was through arguing. Walking multiplication-tables! Pah! Angelo could have them, then!

"It is possible you are not aware, here on Ste. Catherine," the leader began with the slightest tinge of sarcasm, "that on Earth there is, at present, a rather regrettable difference of thinking on policy."

"Another political slaughter, that is," Angelo countered not too lightly for the obvious allusion to Ste. Catherine's complete lack of any kind of electrical or electronic communications. "A major war, in other words."

The leader flushed slightly. "Well, yes. As a matter of fact, it has gotten somewhat out of control." His teeth were almost clenched as he made the admission, and Angelo easily sensed the pain in the man at having to make it to the Artists of Ste. Catherine, of all people in the universe. "Out of control," the leader was continuing, "to the point where, in fact, and according to the unimpeachable findings of our actuarial computers, human life on Earth is threatened with complete extinction." The leader hesitated, interpreted the looks in the eyes of the men whom he faced, and found himself not quite able to meet them with his own. But he continued; best to get it said once and for all.

"We are now, of course, well aware that predictions which were once thought the mere rantings of alarmists—religious and philosophical cranks—were tragically accurate. Both sides are perfectly matched from the technological aspect, of course. The so-called 'secrets' of science cannot be kept 'secret' at all, at least not by men. They exist everywhere in the universe, for any man to seek and to exploit as he sees fit." He paused, at last found the temerity to meet the gazes of the others.

"Go on," Angelo said.

"Both sides have come to absolute stalemate. But not, regrettably, the kind of stalemate that means cessation of activity. In a conflict to the death, stalemate simply means battle without victory; battle until neither side has a living man left to fight.

"So, in short, we are desperate. There must be a victor, or Earth is lost entirely. One more mass strato-attack with L-bombs and.... Well, at any rate—there must, as you can readily understand, be a victor, and soon. Obviously, the Others must be defeated."

Yes of course, thought Maler, the Philosopher. It is the Others, always, who must be defeated....

"And so we have," the leader was saying, "come to you for help."

He stopped speaking then, for a moment, waiting for Angelo's reply. Waiting simply for him to ask "what kind of help could we Artists possibly give you...."—waiting for, and prepared to take unflinchingly, the searing taunt that could not help but be in the question ... "—you who can fly ships through Space, who have at your computer-tips the hard-won miracles of science and engineering?" But wordlessly, the leader waited.

And in the brief moment before he spoke, the history of it all flashed through Angelo's mind; the history that began with the Revolt. Three centuries ago, with the Ancestors of them all on Ste. Catherine. The artists, the philosophers, the writers, the orators, the dramatists, the poets—all of them, who had, when at last they could no longer stomach their civilization's arrested adolescence and its refusal to be weaned from its electronic and atomic toys, remembered the first Fundamental Law of Order in art, and put it to devastating use. Unity.

In Unity, they rebelled.

They warned, first, in fairness. They took pains to point out carefully that it is a healthy sign for the developing child to become intrigued with movement, sound, and color—that it was normal for a child to spend hours observing, examining, operating, even building a new mechanical toy. But when his new books gathered dust and fell into disuse—when he could quote all of Faraday and none of Swinburne—when this happened, his development as a human being of full depth and breadth was at an end.

When he became hypnotized by his toys—

When motion and force became an obsession—

When the means became an end in itself; when the tool became the raison-d'etre, rather than the structure it had been fashioned only to help build, then the point of civilization had been hopelessly lost, and thinking men had but one alternative: leave, and start over.

And so, banded together, they had left.

It had not been so difficult. For to the Ancestors, a tool was always that and nothing more. They could not build spaceships, but they could buy them, and so they had.

They could not navigate Space nor pilot their craft, so they hired the technicians and engineers who could.

And when the Ancestors had arrived at a planet of their choice (the scientists had been duly proud of their superior accomplishment in being able to find just such a planet—and of course were paid more than the engineers and technicians) the Ancestors gave them all sizable bonuses and sent them packing back to Earth where there were so many fine Things to spend their money on.

The Ancestors had, of course, been called dreamers, ivory-towerists, alarmists, fools. They had been called madmen who lived in the unenlightened past, believers in some foolishness called artistic integrity; schizoids who were afraid to face Reality. Posh, polish, and good riddance muttered the sane ones over their charts and oscilloscopes as the last of the Ancestors' ships blasted free of Earth. Muttered, of course, because there was, somehow, a vague awareness that the Culture-Vultures hadn't left in fear of the bright, quick Machines, but in—well, they said, in disgust!

Good riddance to childish rubbish.

But now, apparently, the men of Earth had gotten themselves into something so peculiarly impossible that they were desperate enough to face the cutting wit of the fat-bottomed Artists on Ste. Catherine, who wouldn't be able to say "I told you so" in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way and let it go at that. Oh, no. But it would be better to have their damned articulate tongues tear you apart than an S-field.

The moment of reflection was spent, and Angelo asked the question.

"And how can we help you?" was all he said.

The leader took a deep breath.

"One moment," Angelo said as he was about to speak. "Just a word of warning if you please. If you want anything of us at all, simply state your case in plain language. Don't try to 'sell' us anything—we can beat you roundly at that! And if we agree to your request, you will accept exactly what we give you; beggars, no matter how expert in some things, are still not in the position of choosers! A matter, after all, of—shall we say, artistic integrity?"

The leader's eyes flashed: Damn you and your infernal artistic integrity! but it was his mouth which, fortunately for him under the circumstances, did the talking.

"Very well. As I said, both Sides are in perfect technological and therefore military balance—"

"Balance is so important," interrupted Angelo. Behind him, Ojar, the Orator was having a difficult time repressing a yelp of pure mirth. It was unfair, of course, to bait these stumble-witted fellows like this, but it was amusing—especially when Angelo did it, who, though a Painter, was well up on his word-play. "... Perhaps you have already noticed," Angelo was going on, quite oblivious to the perspiration on the leader's high forehead, and exactly as Ojar had expected, "how well we of Ste. Catherine observe the Fundamental Laws of Order. The Rhythm of our very way of life, for example—but excuse me! You were outlining your request...."

The leader had reddened helplessly, and his subordinates had both stolen quick glances at him. It was as though images of the man himself, reflected from mirrors at either side, had suddenly taken on a volition of movement of their own. But quite quickly they became well-behaved images again.

"Both sides have equally effective weapons and defenses," the leader went on, "and so it has become a disastrous war of attrition. To win, we must have something they do not have, obviously."

"To bring your Side into Dominance, of course," said Angelo sagely. "To prevent your Subordination, as it were...." Ojar had a sudden, violent fit of coughing.

"Yes," the leader said. There was a momentary blankness in his eyes, and Angelo decided that enough was enough. Unfairness was unfairness, after all. They must hear the man out.

"We have looked back over history," the leader said. "It was an unprecedented step, to be sure, but we were desperate! At any rate, we discovered that one time, it was possible to make an enemy believe he was wrong, and that you, his enemy, were right, through a rather obscure verbal art called, I believe it was, propaganda?"

"Yes," said Angelo. "The province in Art of writers and orators. As a painter or sculptor will create illusion with paints or stone, just so did the writer create illusion with letters."

"So we came to understand," the leader said, trying a little note of sarcasm of his own. "Our present difficulty is this: we of course have no such peop—er, Artists—at our disposal. We of course tried our own hand at it but nobody ever seemed quite able to agree on just what it was we were trying to talk about, so—well—We have come to you. Will you do this for us? A few words, for the sake of humanity?"

Clever, thought Maler, at that. An intended appeal to the philosophical side of the artistic mind. Maybe the poor wretch really meant it, even if he wasn't aware that "humanity" meant both Sides.

"To answer you," Angelo was replying, "I'll of course have to summon our Master of Letters. It may not be easy to win his assent, I warn you. He can trace his own ancestry all the way back to newspaper reporters, advertising copywriters and trade-journal writers—and so has naturally inherited their bitterness toward all such prostitutions of the Art of Writing, and artistic integrity in general. And you will admit that hacking out propaganda to order is of course just that, to say nothing of the moral aspects involved! However—"

Magnanimously, Angelo lifted his right arm and beckoned, and a Student was at once at his side.

"Fetch Master Forsyth at once. And tell him I said to leave his new Quarto behind; this is urgent."

The young woman left, and they waited.

"A cigarette?" Angelo proffered the leader.

There was surprise on the man's face. "You mean you can make—"

"Just crude paper and tobacco grown in the soil," Angelo said apologetically. "Untouched by any rays but the sun's, I'm afraid, and our few medicine-men—we have all kinds of hobbies here of course—just won't comment. Here ... and a light...."

The leader had almost finished his cigarette when the Master of Letters arrived.

"Angelo, you churl, sir! Do you know how long I've been working on that line? You know how difficult it is for me to get a decent trochee when I'm—oh, company? Capital! 'Come fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring—'"

"Please, Forsyth. These men are here on business. They want you to do them a favor."

Resignedly, Forsyth kept quiet. And listened for good measure.

He listened for ten minutes. And then the leader was finished and Forsyth said "A pox on't!"

"Please, Forsyth—"

"He's right!" came Tharn's voice. "I told you I didn't like it, and I don't, and—"

"He doesn't like it?" bellowed Forsyth. "Then by Heav'n, I'll do it! Teach you, sire, to make charcoal caricatures of me on a day when I'm not lampooning you! Very well, but I don't think I've got too many apprentices that aren't engaged right at the moment. Nonetheless, if—"

The leader was beyond control. "Apprentices, did you say?" he croaked hoarsely. "Why, you—"

"What in Dante did you think, man-child?" shot back Forsyth. "You don't suppose I'd give you finished, creative writers for the job of a trained ape, do you? Some apprentices I've got, and some apprentices you'll get—and only because Dean Angelo here says so."

The three men from Earth strode with military precision back toward their ship. The leader was in the center, and his subordinates, each with bulging briefcases in both hands, were on either side. A large group from the colony walked at a slower pace behind. Angelo, as usual, was at their head, and flanking him were Tharn and Forsyth.

"Another whole week wasted!" lamented Forsyth. "Not that the time means anything, but those sensitive young boys and girls of mine will never be the same! One of them, just this morning, told me she was thinking of taking up politics as a hobby! The tortures I go through for you, Angelo—"

"I still don't like it!" Tharn cut him off. "And I don't like them! And, Forsyth, I saw what you had your precious little apprentices doing! You had them writing exactly the same tripe they wrote for that other crowd that landed two weeks ago!"

"Tharn, you certainly aren't the only one who has no use for that barbaric breed. So—as long as they remain equally matched, they'll eventually, uh—"

"But that means—"

"A Fundamental Law of Order, of course, my dear Tharn. Balance, as I think I may already have pointed out...."

Forsyth quoted something from on obscure source about the importance of artistic integrity, and then they watched together as the ship from Earth blasted homeward.