The Wheel is Death by Roger D. Aycock

The Wheel Is Death
The little world was quiet at last.
Only one thing remained to be
done—Gor Zan must be slain, quickly.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1949.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

His thin scream keened away in the distance.

He was too late to stop them. Old Kaliz dropped his upraised arm, and at his signal the four naked under-priests flung the bound body of Gor Zan over the precipice. Ortho heard his friend’s thin scream keening away until it dwindled in the distance and the muted roar of the falls boiling at the cliff’s bottom floated upward and drowned it.

He turned to run, but the horror of what he had seen numbed his limbs to nightmare slowness. Kaliz and the four under-priests caught him before he had taken a dozen steps.

“You are still a neophyte,” old Kaliz said gently. “You have only begun to learn, and so you cannot understand why Gor Zan had to die. The answer lies there.” He pointed a wrinkled hand to the Valley below.

Over the heads of the four priests who squatted on the ledge outside the priest-cave Ortho looked down into the Valley, the lush green miles of its even floor clothed in a faint rosy haze of vapor. The sun sat red upon the western wall; above the eastern rim the rising moon hung warm and turquoise-blue, its great encircling ring pulsing like an aura of living light. Under its glow the Valley-haze turned violet and then blue, and on the heels of its rising came the faint elfin voices of the People, leaving their caves to play in the meadow.

Ortho sat back upon his polished sitting-stone and met the high-priest’s eyes defiantly.

“There is no reason down there,” he said sullenly. “It is only the People, coming out to play under the moon. You killed Gor Zan because he was wiser than you, because he talked to the People and made clear to them things they did not understand before. You were jealous of him and you killed him lest he make your own wisdom seem small in the eyes of the People.”

Kaliz sighed and seated himself stiffly on his own sitting-stone.

“The young do not learn easily,” he said. “But believe this, Ortho—your friend Gor Zan was a snare to the People and a deadly menace to their way of life. We took him from them reluctantly and only as a last resort, before he could start the People again on the bloody path of ambition, progress and the Machine.”

Ortho cupped his still beardless chin in his hands and stared disconsolately down into the blue-hazed Valley where the People played.

“Empty talk,” he said contemptuously. “Priest-talk—ambition, progress, the Machine! I do not know the words. There is nothing but the Valley and the People, who have always been and who will always be. Your words have no meaning.”

“I have taught these others,” Kaliz murmured. The blue moonlight pulsed warm across his wrinkled face, made his hooded eyes pools of reflected light. “I can teach you, too. You would know these things soon, because you are almost ready to read the Books; but I shall tell you now, that you may not be rebellious for lack of understanding.”

He pointed again, this time at the moon with its restless blue halo.

“It was not always so,” he said. His voice softened as his memory drifted back across the ages. “Once it was yellow, pitted and airless and dead, shining only with light reflected from the sun. Men changed that, as they changed the face of their world, by the power of their science, which in the end defeated the aims they strove for and destroyed them almost utterly. The handful that remained of them found haven in the Valley and began a new civilization, which is today the People. This time, being wiser, they outlawed the practice of science.”

Under Kaliz’ calm assurance Ortho’s resentment dwindled, and his loathing of the high-priest gave way to bewilderment.

“Science?” he repeated. “It is another strange word. I do not understand.”

“In another age Gor Zan would have been a scientist,” Kaliz said. “I have seen them with my own eyes in the ancient days, puttering in tomblike shops that shut other men away from them, denying all pleasure while they spent their lives improving what other scientists had already discovered. They were never satisfied, and in the end it was their insatiable lust for perfection that killed them, that set the very moon aflame and flung mankind back into the savagery from which it had risen.

“For there was a time,” he went on sombrely, shifting his sitting-stone to follow Ortho’s troubled gaze down into the blue depths of the Valley, “long before my own, when men lived as simply as we, but without our peace and security. The world then was a savage place, full of frightful beasts which killed men for food because they were no more than weaker animals. Men, being weak and soft, sought communal safety in numbers and gained an advantage over the beasts because they developed intelligence and logic by exchanging ideas and experiences.

“They learned to use this intelligence to develop weapons which eventually wiped out the dangerous beasts and made the world safe; but they were not content with safety, and fought savagely among themselves. Nations numbering millions of men came into being and warred with each other, and with each war their ingenuity grew and the deadliness of their weapons kept pace with their ingenuity.”

Kaliz was quiet for a moment, listening to the faint laughter of the People that drifted up faintly from the Valley floor.

“Men were not happy then as they are now,” he said. “I remember them, Ortho, because I was one of them, and by a miracle escaped the great holocaust that destroyed mankind. Men had developed a weapon whose destructiveness was beyond the power of the mind to conceive, and it escaped control; nation after nation died in a breath, whole continents vanished under the impact of robot missiles whose explosions destroyed matter itself. One of these, perhaps by intent, struck the moon, and its reaction under the moon’s lighter gravity set up a conflagration which never went out.

“Those of us who survived the holocaust were greatly changed by the radiations of the explosions, and most of us soon died. I alone, by chance, was rendered deathless. More ages have passed than I can number, but I live on, perhaps eternally, to see that the People do not err and fall again into the trap which science with its Machines would place in their way.

“Gor Zan was a throwback to my own savage day, a natural scientist who believed nothing he was told and reasoned with a deadly logic that nothing created by nature can be perfect, but must be improved by the thought and effort of man. Today we slew him, reluctantly, because he had taken the final irrevocable step that branded him a heretic and an outlaw.

“Gor Zan made a Machine.”

He stretched out a hand to Ortho and they rose together, the abashed eyes of the neophyte not meeting those of the high-priest.

“Come,” Kaliz said, “and behold the thing with your own eyes. I have kept it intact to convince you beyond doubt of Gor Zan’s heresy.”

They went back into the priest-cave, past the long tiers of Books, crumbling and yellow with age, to stand in awed silence over the thing Gor Zan had made. Ortho stared, shivering, feeling the cold aura of unsentient, alien power that radiated from the Machine.

It was a crude affair, built upon two wooden shafts that slanted upward to end in a pair of rough handles. Across them were lashed shorter sticks that supported a woven basket. At the forward end was a thin disc made of wooden segments, a little wooden axle running through the center and holding the disc upright between the joined ends of the shafts.

“Gor Zan tired of making two trips to his cave with firewood and fruit,” old Kaliz said sombrely, “so he created a Machine which would carry a greater load than his shoulders would bear. In my own age the thing was called a Wheelbarrow, but the name of it is not important now because there will never be another.

“We will destroy it now, and with its destruction we will forget what Gor Zan had rediscovered, which is the first principle of the Machine that enslaved and then destroyed mankind—the Wheel.”