Robert Nowall

The Danger of Going Native, by Robert Nowall
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THE DANGER OF GOING NATIVE

by

Robert Nowall

"You want me to what?" Rajine asked.

Professor Teobaldi smiled. He smiled a lot. To Rajine, he looked the perfect specimen of a smiling English Gentleman. He even dressed the part, in shirt and shorts and shoes and a helmet that looked like what the English wore in tropical climates in their brief empire on Earth.

It was an act, Rajine knew. There were no more English and all he or Professor Teobaldi knew about them was what they had studied. Rajine wondered why fate had brought him here. Here he was, fresh out of school, a new-minted junior member of the Anthropological Survey Corps. Tons of work on hundreds of planets, just waiting for study. A lifetime of work...detailing variations from First Empire behavior and odd and unusual survivals. Reports to compile...books to be written. He couldn't wait to get into the field and begin.

Yet here he was, studying a much-studied primitive tribe---the Tribe, they were always called in the reports Rajine read. And assigned as trainee and assistant to Professor Teobaldi, a senior corpsman and teacher---and a man with a Corps-wide reputation for not keeping any assistant for more than one six-month hitch.

The issue had come up. Professor Teobaldi smiled at him---it had not irritated him as much then---and said, "I see you do not understand. But I can put it terms you can understand. You graduated, I gather. But you were not a brilliant student."

Rajine had to acknowledge the truth of it. With his grades just-over-the-bottom of passing, he could not hope to pull down a prestige assignment.

Teobaldi went on smiling. "I'm your last chance. Do well here, and you'll go on to other things. Better things, maybe. But fail, and---" His smile became broad. "I have ways of taking care of failures."

Over the next few weeks, he had argued with the Professor, about his grades and relative status in his graduating class, about his merits as a field anthropologist, about other things. Professor Teobaldi dismissed them all---always with that smile on his face. But, Rajine learned, when the Professor stopped smiling it was time to stop arguing.

Professor Teobaldi smiled now. He said, "You must be adopted into the Tribe. You must study them from within. You need to be safe from their habits and traditions."

The two of them walked along, away from their camp. Just five separate tents, sealed up behind dozens of meters of electric fence, stayaway fields, and automatic machine guns. They could sleep at night with peace of mind behind all that. Rajine looked up at the sun, and wished he were there right now.

Already the planet's hot sun was headed towards the horizon. It had been a hot day, and the coming evening, Rajine knew, would still be warm. The coolsuit he wore could do just so much. Sweat dripped from his face and, he could see, from the Professor's face, too. The Professor, in his pseudo-English outfit, must have been even more uncomfortable. But he gave no sign.

Why had it come to this? Here they were, on the way to the Tribe's new encampment. Two hundred people, living on what they could dig up from their surroundings, bugs and grubs and tubers and shoots, and when they could get it the occasional rollaway or millionquill.

And, when they could also get it, the occasional bit of human flesh.

By the time the two of them reached the Tribe's encampment, Junior knew, it would be sunset or close to it. There wouldn't be time to get back to their own camp before the sun was gone---and then they would have him.

"Look," Professor Teobaldi said, "by their belief system, the Tribe must conduct this rite just after the sun goes down. It's part and parcel of their faith."

"It's part of my faith that I don't want to be eaten by them," Rajine replied, with some disgust. "That's something that also takes place after sundown." He stopped, and looked at the sky and the sun again. "You sprang this on me, sir."

"Less time for thought," the Professor said.

"I thought we were going out for a brief stroll, to check on our instruments before sundown."

"Things change." Professor Teobaldi stopped and folded his arms across his chest. "Now look, you. I want you to be adopted into the Tribe and I want no fuss about it."

Rajine looked around. They had reached the top of the big hill, about halfway between their camp and the Tribe. There wasn't much on the hilltop, just a couple of dried-up old stumps, legacy of when the plains were covered with forest. Sometimes he and the Professor had sat down and taken a short rest on the way to or from the Tribe.

Now the Professor sat down on one of the stumps, and gestured for Rajine to sit down on the other. Now did not seem the time to stop or rest. Rajine looked around, unease in him. The shadows were long and this planet's sun looked like a big squished red ball on the horizon. They had no time to spare.

"Sir," Rajine said, "suppose something goes wrong? You might be safe, but me?"

"Nothing will go wrong," Professor Teobaldi said. "Nothing went wrong with my adoption. Here!" The Professor pulled his personal computer from its clip on his toolbelt. He unfolded it several times until the keyboard expanded to full size. He rested it on his knees and began typing.

Rajine watched the screen image build up in the air in front of Professor Teobaldi. It spun until it faced him straight on. It displayed an image of night, dark, lit by a red fire. Jerky, amateurish, a record of an event rather than a slick and professional production.

It was a shot of the Professor and a group of natives. They danced. Rajine recognized the dance as part of the celebration of a ritual adoption.

The Professor grinned. "See? No trouble at all."

"Ew," Rajine grunted. The dancers---the Professor included---were naked except for ceremonial body paint.

The Professor grinned and pointed. "See? I could never have done that---never could have been there with the Tribe at night---if I hadn't been adopted."

"I can see," Rajine said. "I can see."

Professor Teobaldi shook his head. "I don't think you do, my boy. There's more than an adoption at stake here You're handicapping me. I need my assistant at my side when I study the Tribe at night. I can't afford not to have him there. And there's no way you can do that---function as my assistant---without being adopted into the Tribe."

With some strain in his voice, Rajine said, "I'll point out the obvious. The Tribe slaughters and eats any stranger they come across at night."

"When you're adopted, you won't be a stranger to them."

The Professor grinned---he liked to show his teeth, Rajine thought. The Professor grinned and said, "They already think you're my son. You're halfway there."

Rajine grimaced. "Why just halfway, sir? If they think I'm your son, why do I even need to be adopted?"

Now the Professor clucked while smiling. "Do you want to choose spending the night with the Tribe on that alone?" He shook his head. "Not enough, son. They'd get to you without the adoption."

Rajine felt his rage build. Was this all just a big joke to the Professor? He glanced at the still-playing image, at the naked Professor. He grinned in the pictures, too. "Look," he said. "In school, I was taught it was always---always---a bad idea to get so far into a culture that you---do things like that." He pointed---his fingertip brushed the built-up image, which wavered a little with the intrusion.

"Oh, you've spent too much time in school." The Professor closed up his computer---folded and refolded the keyboard until it was again small enough to hang from his toolbelt. The image vanished. The air in which it had hung shimmered a little before returning to normal. The Professor shook his head. "Rajine, Rajine, like all youngsters fresh out of school, you've been handed a complicated set of rules. But you've got to learn that none of them are absolute rules. The times come, more often than you'd think, when you've got to bend them. For your own good. For the good of others. For the good of this study."

Rajine's jaw opened...then closed. "Sir, how is dropping this rule the way you've done helpful?"

"We've gone over it. You know the Tribe leads, shall we say, an active social life at night?"

"Meaning rites and rituals associated with cannibalism"

"Among many other things." He leaned back a little---almost falling off the stump he sat on---and put his hands behind his head. "Just because you disapprove of cannibalism does not mean that cannibalism, and those who practice it, are not valid subjects for study."

"I do not disapprove of either as a field of study. I do disapprove of providing myself as a subject for them to practice on." Rajine looked towards the horizon. The ruddy globe was now almost halfway down. On this Empire-forsaken planet, how long was that in minutes?

"Look, Professor," Rajine said. "Couldn't we just, well---postpone this? I can make it back to base before the light is gone."

Professor Teobaldi grinned his grin. "You are not going back to base. You're coming with me. Forward. To the Tribe. You have an appointment---to be adopted. Remember?"

Rajine got up from his stump. "Can we at least get moving?"

"You'll be there in plenty of time. Don't get your bowels in a twist about it."

Rajine frowned. But Professor Teobaldi got up, dusted his short pants off with his hands, and started walking down the hillside---towards the village. Rajine frowned even deeper, and followed in the Professor's wake.

After a half-minute or so of silence, by which time they reached the bottom of the hill, Rajine said, "What about the Tribe, sir?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean their beliefs and customs."

"You have a problem with them?"

"Haven't I made myself clear, sir?" Rajine sighed. "But there's more to this than the possibility of being eaten."

"Indeed?" The Professor hesitated, but just for a moment. His stride skipped a single stroke---or was it the more-level ground they were on---but he didn't stop. Instead he twisted his head around a little as they walked.

"I mean, sir," Rajine said. "I mean, I am a product of the highest civilization the Second Empire has yet produced. I believe in many things---but my beliefs are not the beliefs of the Tribe." Rajine took a deep breath. "Sir, my beliefs contradict their beliefs. In fact, my beliefs make it such that I cannot take their beliefs with all due seriousness. How can I?"

"You're forgetting the rules you've studied, son."

"The rules you told me not three minutes ago to forget?"

"Don't be crass." For a change, the expression on the Professor's face was a sour one. He stopped and turned around to face Rajine, the light from the setting sun shining straight into his face, lighting it up to make it look almost devilish, Rajine thought.

He put one hand over his heart while he pointed upward with the other. "'In all circumstances,'" he quoted, "'the field anthropologist must show respect for the beliefs of those whom he studies.'" He smiled. "That's from the field manual of the Anthropological Survey Corps, which I'm sure you must have studied."

"You mean, 'if you can't feel it, fake it.'" Rajine grimaced.

"Don't complain." Professor Teobaldi craned his head back and looked past Rajine, at the horizon. Rajine turned around. The sun was almost gone. Even if he turned and ran right then, he knew he wouldn't make it back to camp before dark---and someone from the Tribe would be waiting for him.

He turned around. Beyond where the Professor stood, Rajine could see other lights. The campfires of the Tribe. They must have a good number of roaring fires going, Rajine thought. For the adoption ceremony? How often do they adopt someone into the Tribe?

The Professor said, sharpness in his tone, "Now hurry along. We're to be there just at last light. I don't want to be late."

"I'm still thinking of turning back, Professor."

"You will do no such thing." The Professor crossed his arms across his chest. "I will not allow you to embarrass me in this manner. You will go through with the ceremony."

He stopped, and glared at Rajine with an intensity Rajine found unusual. Uncomfortable, too. Rajine fidgeted under the Professor's glare.

After a moment, the Professor said, "I had hoped you would do this of your own accord. But enough is enough. I order you to go through with this."

That was that. Rajine said no more then and there. They both started walking, Professor Teobaldi taking the lead.

But Rajine kept thinking, It wasn't right. The Professor was rushing him into this. It wasn't right.

The path took them down a shallow gully, that put the fires of the camp behind the hill. It was dark enough now, that they seemed brighter than they were. And darker when they were gone. Rajine glanced back at the horizon. Now the sun was gone, below the horizon, leaving just a rosy glow that Rajine knew would soon be gone.

When they rounded the hill, Rajine also knew, they would be at the Tribe camp. There would be no light but that of the fires. And then what would happen?

"Professor!" Rajine said.

The Professor did not turn around. "Oh, what is it now? I've just about had it."

"I'm scared, sir. Just what is involved in this ceremony?"

The irritation in his voice seemed to grin---if he faced him, Rajine was sure, he would be grinning. "Oh, you've seen my videos. A little blood, a little pain. A little body paint, too. Nothing you have to worry about."

"That's a relief."

"Never mind the irony, Rajine. Ah, we're here."

They had completed the turn. Rajine looked into the camp. Every member of the Tribe had gathered---and, he saw with a glance, some had slipped in behind the two of them. All were silent. Now he was surrounded, with no way out but to go ahead.

In the light of the fires, he saw---what was it? A large stone slab. He remembered studying it in the broad daylight that seemed another lifetime ago. The slab where the Tribe slaughtered their victims after dark in ritual ceremony. The Butcher's Table, the Professor had called it in his notes.

A sudden moment of panic hit him. "Professor!" he said. "What if it's a lie?"

"What do you mean?" That grin was still in his voice.

"I mean, suppose this is all some scheme? That they intend to kill and eat me all along?" A suspicion took hold of him as he spoke, and he added, "Suppose you were in on it?" Then an older suspicion followed. "This is your way of taking care of failures?"

As the last sliver of sunlight disappeared, the Professor turned to face him, lit by the fires. He smiled. "Darn," he said. "You got me."

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