Monday, June 14, 2010

Part 16, Chapter 1 - Atonement

Terl's in solitary confinement, of sorts: a janitor's closet with a cot, a port to push food through, an intercom, and some breathe-gas. If he'd been put with the other Psychlos he'd have been torn apart by now, what with almost singlehandedly dooming his race to extinction and toppling an interuniversal empire through greed and incompetence. Naturally, he blames the females, both Chirk and the human hostages. "His hindsight was a bit faulty, but not his conviction that it was correct. Always a master of self-delusion, Terl was at his best these days."

Cheer up Terl, you were up against a demigod! No shame in losing with odds like that.

He's still fixated on those ten golden coffin lids that he's convinced are waiting for him on Psychlo, and is incensed at the betrayal of those ingrate man-things. But Terl is determined to free himself and attain wealth and prestige, through the power of cleverness and leverage. He knows that there's explosives still buried under Jonnie's old cage, and that there is a third detonator remote hidden outside the cage door. He also tallies two more trump guards that not even the narrator will tell us about yet.

Terl's objective is obvious - he must be in that cage!

So the big dope starts chatting with the (single) guard outside his improvised cell, asking about the half-wing on his uniform. The guard, a Swede named Lars Thorenson, explains that he's still in training. Terl expresses his confidence that young Lars will earn his full wings soon, and compliments him on his Psychlo, offering to help him practice by conversing with a real alien. Once Terl explains that he's also a pilot, the two become buddies.

Over the next few days Lars and Terl talk while the former takes his turns standing guard in between classes. Lars practices his Psychlo, and Terl passes on piloting tips that if actually used would probably get Lars killed, because he's compulsively evil like that, forcing him to risk losing an asset to a training accident. Then one day Terl explains that to go any further in Lars' language training, he ought to have access to a dictionary. He's loaned one.

There were a lot of words in the composite language called "Psychlo" that were never actually used by Psychlos. They had leaked into the language from Chinko and other tongues. Psychlos never used them because they could not really grasp their conceptual meaning.

So Terl looked up words and phrases like "atone for wrongs," "guilt," "restitution," "personal fault," "pity," "cruelty," "just," and "amends." He knew they existed as words and that alien races used them. It was a very, very hard job, and later he would look on this as the toughest part of his whole project. It was all so foreign, so utterly alien!

Wonder what they put on Psychlo legal documents after a trial then, if they don't use "guilt." "Worthy of being punished?" "Hapless?" Also interesting that despite never being used, these words made it into a dictionary, kinda like if Webster's included an entry for "fixlesnogt."

Anyway, one morning Terl confesses to Lars that he's very, very sorry for all the exploding collar nonsense and attempted genocide, and the only way for him to to feel better about putting Jonnie in a cage is to suffer in the same cage as penance. Lars takes his recording of the conversation (he studies them later as part of his language learning) to his commander. In one of those lucky coincidences, the commander is being troubled with people flying in from all over the world, wanting to see a Psychlo...

So yes, despite most people not even seeing these aliens, the Psychlos were still preventing them from moving freely and kept mankind on the verge of extinction.

Well, Lars' superior is all for putting Terl in the electrified cage, if only to give the tourists something to gawk at, so he floats the idea at the next council meeting, and the busy and distracted bunch of administrators approves the prisoner transfer.

Mission success! Terl's outside in his gas mask, jumping and roaring and beating his chest like a gorilla (he's heard of them from somewhere) to the delight and terror of onlooking children, who throw things at him. Lars even comes up with the idea of giving Terl a collar and chain, which he accepts.

Terl's mouthbones wore a private smile as he capered and postured. He rumbled and roared.

His plans were working out perfectly.

Gotta admire his optimism. Yes, I'm in a cage acting like an animal, but I've got them right where I want them!

Just goes to show, when your main baddie had a villain ball implanted in his skull as a child, the protagonists need to take up the hero ball for someone like Terl to make a comeback. It's the only way you only have one guard watching over an "evil genius" like Terl, and a rookie guard who ought to be given non-essential responsibilities like patrolling the kitchen, at that. And why you'd consider moving a high-priority prisoner from a secure interior holding area to a metal cage on your base's periphery. And why the council of Earth paid so little attention to said high-priority prisoner's relocation. And why the holding cell in question wasn't painstakingly searched for anything that could give said prisoner a reason to request a move. And why there are a bunch of tourists allowed near prisoners. And why nobody's told Jonnie that his nemesis has vowed atonement in complete contrast with everything known about such an evil species.

Still, despite all the (normal levels of) stupidity... I'm surprised by just how happy I am to be back with Terl again. He's a contemptible cretin and a failure as a villain, but unlike Jonnie, the entire universe isn't bending over backwards to smooch his fanny. Hubbard insists that Terl is dangerous and devious, but he doesn't make people worship him, which makes him more likable than the book's hero. Damning with faint praise, I know...

Back to Part Fifteen, Chapter Four

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