Silmero was deep in thought. What, if any, were his options? Also: his objectives? Escape, certainly, but in what fashion, and by what means? Princess Daga might be persuaded to accompany him, were he to leave the planet, if only to dispel the boredom predominant on Olk. After his escape had been effectuated, meeting with Daga might very well be a secondary goal. Silmero’s thoughts dwelt for a moment on other objectives of lesser importance – securing a modest amount of the contents of the royal vaults, delivery of the messages from Emperor Trum to the leaders of the Northern Emilgates, which had been his primary objective before arriving on Olk – but then returned to the present.
For the moment, two objectives will suffice, he said to himself. Primo: escape to the surface; secundo: finding Princess Daga and try to persuade her to come with me. Further objectives are likely to muddle the mind, and attach an inordinate worth to less important quests.
Thus he returned to the matter of escaping; how? Stealth was out of the question, as he was encased in a heavy harness with metal springs coiled around his arms and legs, affixing them to the walls. Brute strength? The harness was stout, and the guards were all barthaks, and therefore out of his league, even could he free himself from the harness. The glib tongue that had got him in this mess in the first place was of no help, as the barthaks were deaf by nature and unreasonable by training.
He considered these more immediate problems for a while. Finding them unsolvable, he proceeded on the assumption that providence would suggest means and opportunity for his escape from this delicate predicament. If serendipity could not be trusted, what could? Silmero thus set his trust in the future; the alternative was unpalatable. He returned to the greater scheme, assuming escape was possible.
What then? The canister of which his cell and the small guard quarters outside them were part had, as was custom on Olk, been lowered into a basin of lye. The only connections to the surface were a stout chain and a tube, by which communication with the Head Guardian up above took place, and through which the churlish rations he was given daily arrived.
The Head Guardian had taken Silmero for a tour of the premises before putting him in the canister. The cell itself was cylindrical, with a rail circumnavigating it at just above head length, a small protruding cabinet for defecation, and a button just by the door that he was to press if the urge to confess and thereby end his confinement came over him. In an attempt to weaken his resolve, or perhaps to gloat, the Head Guardian had shown his prisoner even the minutest details of the system. The futility of trying to escape had been thoroughly impressed on Silmero’s mind.
Yet, in some way he had to escape. The canister was a Cage of Penitence, in which recalcitrant prisoners were placed until they recanted and confessed. Meals were served three times a day: a handful of dyed oats, thin strips of minke blubber, and a local fruit well known for its ammonia-like odour. Even had these meals been served by the most voluptuous of women, the situation would have become unbearable within a few days. Now, slimy barthaks with faces like dung-trouts filled this rôle.
Silmero tried the metal coils. The rails permitted him to move around the circumference of the room, but the coils would keep him standing at all times. He could, with some effort, bring his arms in front of him, but it took most of his resolve to keep them there for any period of time, before they drew his arms back to the walls again. The legs were somewhat easier to move. If he stretched them out in front of him, they recoiled more slowly than the arms, and while the coils attached to the arms were connected to a metal rail going all around the cell, the leg coils were connected only to the harness. Slowly, a plan began to form.
Over the next several days, Silmero moved to the far end of the room every time he heard one of the barthaks open the door to feed him. He kept his mind alert by reciting the contents of Emperor Trum’s message and translating it, in whole or in part, to High Olkese, the Mantwan tongue, Brazini, and several other languages. He discovered that the Brazini word for “guarantee your independence” was superficially similar to the phrase “sell you a trogon” in High Olkese; though he was undecided on whether these exercises kept him sane, or rather sped up his mental deterioration.
While eating, he studied the breastplates and sheaves of his guards, trying to establish whether or not there were any differences between them that would enable him to tell how many there were. Eventually, he settled on four as the most probable number. One of them, with a breastplate that had been indented twice in the upper left corner, had most often served him food – indicating a low, possibly menial, rank – whereas the one with the broad green stripe on the left leg sheave probably was higher up in the hierarchy, and never actually entered the cell. This was an affront on his dignity, Silmero decided, which the guard (captain? did such terms even apply?) would come to regret.
In all events, he was the model prisoner in all aspects save one: he would not confess his crimes. These, he understood, included incidental theft, mental promiscuity, and treason involving a small concealed axe, all of which were ludicrous charges, and none of which would hold up in an intergalactic court. This was hardly consoling, however, as these courts were far from Olk.
Nevertheless, he ate his rations obediently and never tried to shove or intimidate his guards. His ablutions were kept tidy, and at no point did he try to overwhelm his guards with the night’s defecations, for which his guards commended him in their lurid sign language.
“I am, above all, a gentleman, although you have elected to drag me to your level and treat me like a brute,” Silmero answered them, though the restriction put upon his arms by the metal coils prevented him from using the barthak sign language properly, and his assertions fell of deaf ears.
After a week, the Head Guardian sent a message to him, commending him for being a model prisoner. As Silmero was about to bring to the barthak’s attention the absurdity of keeping a model prisoner locked up, the Head Guardian forestalled him by sending a second message, urging him to confess his crimes, repent, and finally make the selection of what kind of execution he preferred from a special list, which was attached. Silmero was adamant.
“These crimes are make-believe, your Head Guardian a nincompoop, and the whole affair a farce,” he declared. “You may tell your Head Guardian that if he were to substitute a judiciary system based on mutually recognised doctrines for his present delirious method of arbitration, I would gladly let myself be submitted to a trial. Under the present circumstances, I find my chances to be untenable, and will have nothing further to do with this matter. You may unshackle me immediately, and I will return to my own planet, where I promise I will subject myself to the most rigorous of penitence under conditions more suitable to my delicate intellect.”
The barthak, however, paid him no heed.
In the next dazzling episode, our Hero will make his escape through an unexpected process, but be bewildered by circumstances he could not imagine!