Several of them found the experience difficult. “It is too noisy here,” one said to me. “I do not mean there is too much sound, but that there is too much going on.” And not all enjoyed flying as much as Gelmar now did.
It was Gelmar’s partner, Adelghem (the “gh” sounded as a very soft, voiced “g”), who told us the most about Brjemych and their civilization. She was a story-teller, the nearest Brjemych equivalent to an Earthly professional writer.
“We are quite conservative,” she said of her race. “We do not much like change. We like to do things as we have always done them, and we do things slowly if we can.”
Adelghem also told us one of her stories; and yet, its outlook was hardly conservative. I liked it so much, that I asked John to record Adelghem telling it, using a two-way translator. Then I transcribed it myself – the hard way, word by word.
“Once upon a time,” began Adelghem, “there was a world, much like yours or ours. On it, there was a large island, divided into four kingdoms of roughly equal size. Their borders all met near the middle of the island, at a place called the Four Corners.
“King Felix, ruler of the northern kingdom, did not oppress his people in any way. As long as they treated each other – and him – peaceably and honestly, he did not care what they did. Provided, of course, that they took responsibility for the effects of their actions on those around them. He had a motto, ‘You deserve to be treated as you treat others.’
“So, he let every one of them do what they wanted, subject only to the rule of law and justice. King Felix loved justice and the law, but he detested laws. ‘How does this help good people?’ he used to say when presented with any proposal for a new ‘law.’
“Being intelligent, objective and scrupulously honest, King Felix was much in demand among his people as a judge of hard cases.
“King Radix, ruler of the western kingdom, would have been a nice person, if he hadn’t been a king. He knew that every one of his people was an individual – like him – and he respected that. So he didn’t mind what they did in private.
“But he had a pet hate. He didn’t like those who developed their talents, and pushed the economy forward. So he made taxes and bad laws to harm the honest, productive, successful people he disliked. And he used some of the proceeds to buy popularity with the dishonest, the bureaucratic, the lazy and the useless.
“Radix was liked by some of his people. But those he harmed came, in time, to hate him.
“King Ferox, to the east, was almost the opposite of Radix. He wanted to expand his kingdom, to make himself Dictator of the World. But he couldn’t do that without the support of his people. So, he allowed relative economic freedom. Those who created wealth could, under Ferox, keep some of that wealth. (After the armaments had been paid for, of course.)
“So, many disaffected from Radix’s country came to live under Ferox. Yet, many moved in the opposite direction too. For Ferox rejected anyone who didn’t support his plan. ‘If you’re not with me, you’re against me,’ he said. And he didn’t respect his people as individuals at all. He had them all watched, on the chance that they might disobey some ‘law,’ and so give him and his minions an excuse to persecute.
“The fourth kingdom, in the south, was ruled by King Atrox. Atrox had the worst characteristics of both Radix and Ferox. Like Ferox, Atrox wanted to be Dictator of the World. But, like Radix, he hated anyone who was good at anything – except lying, thieving and killing people, of course. So, almost all of Atrox’s people lived in fear and abject poverty. While Atrox and his sycophants enjoyed the spoils.
“And, like Ferox, Atrox had his people monitored.
“Atrox and his minions brought to a new peak the arts of lying and deceiving. Atrox called his rule ‘democratic.’ The people, it is true, each had something called a ‘vote.’ Every so often, they had an opportunity to select one or another of Atrox’s minions to rule over them. But, whichever they selected, everything got worse, not better. For all the minions were, in reality, Atrocious.
“Now King Felix had a son, and he called him Detox.
“‘You are my eldest son and heir,’ Felix said to Detox, as soon as he was adult. ‘So, I ask you, please, to go to each of the other realms on this island, and bring me back knowledge.’
“The request was so polite, and so much what he wanted to do, that Detox obeyed of his own volition.
“Detox went first to the country of Ferox, who received him well. ‘It is good to make alliance with your father,’ said Ferox.
“Detox looked around, and although he at first liked what he saw, he was soon appalled. Surely, in Ferox’s country, good people could survive, and even make themselves wealthy, up to a point. But they were constantly intimidated by Ferox’s minions. And who would all those armaments be used against? Not his father, Ferox had said jocularly. Detox was not so sure.
“So, Detox left Ferox’s kingdom quietly at night. After a brief rest at home, he next travelled south-westwards, into the territory of Radix. Radix received him with courtesy, but also with amusement. ‘You didn’t enjoy Ferox’s company?’ he asked.
“Detox looked around Radix’s country, and found that a giant bureaucracy ruled over everyone there, and over the entire economy, without much concern for justice or individual rights.
“When he put this to Radix, the latter said, ‘I, too, am a bureaucrat. I am the chief bureaucrat, it is true. But I must play by their rules. How would I survive otherwise?
“‘But you have seen enough here. Now, it is time for you to leave me, and go to Atrox. May you enjoy your time with him.’
“Detox went to the territory of Atrox, who received him with much ceremony. ‘Now I will get my revenge on Felix,’ thought Atrox to himself, ‘for what he – er – hasn’t done to me. His eldest son and heir has fallen into my trap. I will – heh, heh, heh – educate him.’
“Under Atrox’s orders, Detox was taken to primary schools, where the message of the day was ‘How Will You Change Today?’ To secondary schools, where the message for males was ‘Boys ’R Us. If you get in our way, we’ll kill you.’ And for females – Atrox’s kingdom being for the moment under-populated – ‘Do It, Now. Just Don’t Enjoy It.’
“And Detox went to universities too. Where there was much talk of the Oneness of the One – many said that meant Atrox was divine. But even more talk of the Coming Fire, Drought, Plague, Floods, Warming, Cooling, Hurricanes, Hailstorms, Tundra-storms.
“‘And it’s all our fault,’ the academics said. Since he was in someone else’s country, Detox bit back the obvious retort, ‘Yes, it’s all your fault.’
“Now, Detox thought, it was time to go home. The direct route home lay through the Four Corners. But it was well guarded. So Detox had to pay a bribe to go round through Radix’s territory.
“When Detox reached home, his father lay dying.
“‘My son,’ said Felix, ‘what have you found?’
“‘That none of them are to be trusted. Radix is the least bad of a bad bunch.’
“‘Yet he too oppresses his people,’ said Felix.
“‘Father,’ said Detox. ‘I have thought that there maybe is a better way. A Fifth Kingdom, beside the Four, perhaps. A kingdom governed, not by a king, but by moral rules. What is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong.’
“‘And who decides what is right, and what is wrong?’ said Felix with a small smile. ‘There used to be, aeons ago, an organization that claimed to do just that. It was called the church. It was in time discredited, because its leaders did not obey its own rules.
“‘No, my son, for better or worse, you are heir to the Northern Kingdom. Rule it well and wisely.’
“Now Ferox, too, died, just a few weeks after Felix. And his son and heir, Xerox, was no more than a pale copy of his father.
“Seeing this, Atrox decided to let loose war. He invaded the kingdom of Xerox. Radix, not wishing to see a second kingdom fall under the control of Atrox, launched a counter-invasion. Detox merely doubled his border guards, and bided his time.
“It was not long before Radix and Xerox, separated from their capitals and their support by Atrox’s hordes, found themselves holed up together near the Four Corners. They could do only one thing. They appealed to Detox for help.
“Detox was in no mood for compromise. ‘I am not called Detox for nothing,’ he said. ‘If you want my help, you must reform your kingdoms – you must de-tox them. You must end all political lies, redistributory taxes and aggressive wars. You must sack all your bureaucrats, and retire all your professional soldiers. You must institute the rule of law and justice, as my father Felix did. You must look to have every one among your people treated as he or she treats others.’
“Radix and Xerox agreed. What else could they do? Now, Detox’s people were the least warlike on the island. But, when they had to defend themselves, they were strong. And, because they had lived in freedom and justice under Felix, they had loved him, so they were prepared to fight for his son Detox too.
“Detox’s people were so strong, that they pushed the forces of Atrox all the way from the Four Corners, down through the southern kingdom, to the tip of the island, and off it. Atrox’s people were decimated. But Radix’s and Xerox’s people suffered even worse. For Atrox and his cruel generals had had all the male prisoners they took castrated. It would be long before the populations of the eastern and western kingdoms were back up to strength.
“I’m going to cut a long story short here,” said Adelghem. “But Atrox suicided, to avoid being castrated himself. Xerox faded, and died without an heir. Radix went mad, and was imprisoned – gently – in an asylum. And Detox married Helix, Radix’s beautiful daughter. So, eventually he passed to his son Felix the Younger the thrones of all four kingdoms.
“I can’t honestly say,” said Adelghem, “that, at the end of the story, they all lived happily ever after. But, under Good King Felix, the people of the Four Kingdoms were all a lot happier – and the productive among them, a lot more prosperous – than you or I.”