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THE CAPTAIN walked into the officers' mess after coffee. The new third mate, just out of the Academy, started to rise. The Captain motioned him back into his seat.

After a while, the mate asked, "Have you heard the reports over space news?"

The Captain poured the coffee into his saucer. "No."

"About Johnson. Earth's in a stew."

"They say it's unfair," the mate continued. "There have been stories of criminals building up Empires. We are dumping the refuse of humanity on the innocent natives, making others suffer for our mistakes."

"The law says a man convicted of a capital crime shall be exiled," the Captain said.

"Yes, but to set him down on a planet whose natives are weak and defenseless—where he can rule whole races by his slightest whim—that's not right."

The purser gave Johnson fifteen days ration. They sent him down to the surface of the planet in an escape ship.

He got out and stood in the warm air, cursing them. They left him there. Murder had been his crime. He had made a clever job of it, too. He killed for the love of killing. A clueless murder on a dark night. A repeat performance in a week. He struck again and again, senselessly. Eventually, of course, he struck once too often and his luck ran out.

He had always been far too clever to underestimate his opponents. His knowledge of human psychology was flawless. He was caught only because fate had dealt a hand off the bottom of the deck. The councilor had examined his personality, and, with a wry smile, named the planet most suited to it.

Johnson felt sorry for himself; he stood surveying the planet and fuming against the evil machinations of a fickle fortune.

It wasn't an unpleasant little planet. On the contrary, deep-green forests and quiet streams made it beautiful to look at. The blue-green heavens arched high overhead, and the air blew springlike. Strange orange fruit gave promise of food.

If it hadn't been for the natives, Johnson might have sat down and starved to death out of sheer pique.

The natives gave him direction; his wrath and pent-up savagery saw promise of a satisfactory outlet.

ONLY ONE look at the natives assured him of his own superiority. They were dwarfed and twisted. He automatically thought of them as "The Runts." They were skinny. They wore huge, vacant, moronic smiles. Their lips were blubbery. But they were not so repulsive that he couldn't bring himself to tolerate them.

They came upon him in numbers; but they were peaceful, almost childlike. They ran out of the forest and danced around him in a joyful circle. They tugged at his shirt and smiled up at him. They capered and giggled. They led him, in a graceful dance, back into the forest, and directed him, gently but firmly, toward their village.

The village wasn't much. An arrangement of huts, radiating outward from a huge, central structure. They entered the village in a pastoral procession: a rustic setting, bucolic natives. All that was needed was the pipes of Pan.

Johnson began to feel somewhat satisfied. He might even come to enjoy the experience. It offered possibilities. He looked at the natives, and he rubbed his huge, hairy hands together in anticipation. There would be rare sport....

The Runts led him straight to the central building and installed him there. They waited upon him as they would a king, which, doubtless, they thought him to be.

There was only one thing that gave rise to doubts. Johnson discovered that one of the Runts could speak a smattering of English. That was proof that someone had come before him to the planet. Another exile? he wondered. That was the only probable explanation. And that conclusion, since the man was no longer in evidence, gave him pause. However, there was nothing to excite definite suspicion, and he settled down to wait watchfully for the first overt act. Then he intended to demonstrate conclusively that the Runts couldn't put anything over on him.

For a week he waited. And during that time he lived regally.

He was careful of his temper. At the end of that time, however, there was a minor incident. The natives did not seem to resent it.

He had boxed the ears of a servant girl. She had only smiled vacantly back at him and licked her lips. Later he noticed that she had walked proudly through the village as if it were a sign of honor rather than a mark of abuse.

Then, the next day, one of the Runts, in bringing him water, had spilled some across his naked chest. The water was icy. and, in a moment of passion, he broke the native's arm. The Runt had whined a little and slunk off, trailing the arm.

Johnson had waited, then, for an attack that he felt sure must come. None came. Life in the village continued its even tenor. He spent a nervous night over it. But the next morning the Runt was back, his arm in a sling, and the complacent smile back on his face.

He cursed the Runt savagely for an idiot, but the Runt only smiled.

Johnson licked his lips and decided definitely that he was going to enjoy staying with these considerate people. But still, he was uneasy. Things didn't fit.

He could feel a sense of rising resentment within the Runts. He thought he saw hatred in their eyes. But they never moved against him; they served him uncomplainingly, and seemed unduly solicitous of his welfare.

THE NIGHT of the feast, however, it was different. All his servants left him for the ceremonies, and, although he stormed at them from his hut to "cut out that infernal damn' racket so a man can get some sleep," they ignored him completely. The celebrations continued far into the night and the smell of burning flesh was sickening.

Johnson was usually an astute and careful observer. He was, however, on this occasion, lulled into a sense of security. He saw nothing dangerous in the feast, and he deduced nothing from it.

Until now he had never seen the natives eat anything but fruit, and the fact that the carcass the "hunting party" dragged into the village had obviously been dead several days in the sun, meant nothing to him. From it he might have deduced a very significant fact: that they had not killed the animal, but had found it dead. He could have concluded further that the Runts would not kill for food. The conclusion would have been valid. Their religion prohibited it.

He would have noticed, too, had he considered the feast of more consequence, that one of the hunters-the one who had been injured in retrieving the carcass from a swamp—was given first selection of meat. And that this first selection seemed to be considered an honor.

All he did notice was that the whole affair was a savage orgy that turned even his stomach, and he was glad when the last glowing coal sputtered out and the villagers crept to their huts.

The feast did serve to highlight one fact, however. Johnson realized it the next morning. His rations were low. So far he had avoided eating any of the native produce, but now such a course was no longer possible. He would have to start living off of the land.

And, recalling the sight of the dead animal last evening, he decided to try fruit until he could organize a hunting party to bring in fresh meat.

He searched out the native who could speak English and led him back to his hut.

"Food," he demanded imperiously.

The native continued to stare vacantly.

He repeated the word louder.

The native bobbed his head up and down and made no move.

Johnson restrained his temper. He made motions toward his mouth and went through the process of chewing.

The Runt brightened. "Ah.... Whooood!" He scurried off.

In anticipation, Johnson allowed himself one of his few remaining cigarettes while he waited.

He did not have to wait long. The native returned with a woven platter; on the platter were two ripe, orange fruit.

They looked appetizing. He reached out for one of them. The Runt smiled.

Johnson stopped his hand in mid-motion.

The native frowned.

Johnson drew back his hand, puzzled by the native's reaction.

Before him were two pulpy fruit. As near as he could tell, they were both the same. Still. It was obvious that the native felt they were not.

He reached for the other one, and the Runt howled, "Noooo!"

Johnson hesitated; he turned the matter over in his mind.

There was something the matter with one of the things before him.

He cut them open. On the inside, one of them had a bluish tint. He pointed to it.

The native said, "Noooo!"

Johnson ordered more of the fruit. It took him some time to make the native understand.

Finally he got two more. He cut them. He pointed to the one with the bluish tint.

The Runt said no again.

Johnson looked at the Runt narrowly.

He could not understand why they had given him a choice. That was something he would never understand. It involved a concept alien to him, being, as it was, the product of a culture where killing under any circumstance was unthinkable.

Although he could not understand why they gave him a choice, he understood, nevertheless, why they would want to poison him. There was an idea planted in fertile soil.

He smiled grimly. He handed the Runt a piece of the bluish tinted fruit. He motioned that the native should eat it.

The native ate it, still smiling. He then pointed to the rest and to Johnson; he made a twisted face and simulated agony.

Johnson got the idea. The Runt was unaffected by it, but he could not expect the same results.

Then Johnson executed his masterstroke. He thrust the untinted fruit at the native. The Runt ate it with evident satisfaction.

The Runt wiped his lips and smiled up at him. Johnson hit him in the face.

TWO DAYS later, Johnson was hungry. He had tramped the forest in search of game. He had found none. His rations were gone. Finally he had to face the situation squarely.

There was food; plenty of it. It was all around him, and ever at his elbow, a Runt to smile or frown. He knew that the Runts could tell which food would poison him, perhaps because of previous experiences with his race, and he knew that, in the last analysis, he would have to judge from their reactions. To judge falsely would mean death.

He grew irritable. He struck out petulantly at any Runt who came near him. They suffered his ill humor in silence. He knew that their hatred grew.

This, it occurred to him, was not all to his disadvantage. In fact, it was the only way by which he could discover the truth. They were a simple people, and if he fanned the fires that smoldered in them, if he made them hate him enough, they would surely suggest the poison fruit to him. Thus, by acting contrary to their recommendation, he would eat the nonpoisonous. Johnson chuckled and told himself, once more, that he was very clever, indeed.

He committed a senselessly brutal act in public when he was certain that all would see him. He smiled while he did it, and he smiled when he felt their hatred swirl around him as almost a physical force.

Then he summoned the natives around him. They came sullenly, he thought. He stood on the platform by his hut. He made a series of suitable gestures.

He held up the bluish-tinted fruit. The crowd pressed closer. Slowly their faces changed; slowly a negative howl grew out of them.

He held up the other fruit. Their faces were transformed by smiles.

There could be no doubt about which one they wanted him to eat.

He stepped down from the platform; he entered his hut. The crowd pressed close around the hut, watching.

Very deliberately, he lifted the bluish-tinted fruit to his mouth. They howled and twisted their faces in pain.

He studied them, and he knew that they hated him. As he hesitated, they increased the tempo of their horrible pantomime. They gnashed their teeth and rolled in the dirt; they howled and screamed.

There was no doubt, now, in his mind. He bit into the bluish fruit. He imagined their chagrin. The first taste was delicious. Then he was twisted in the agony that the Runts had so forcefully predicted. He fell to the ground and writhed. The Runts were quiet now. Having done everything they could to save his life, they waited expectantly for his death. Morally, they were blameless.

That night, the natives had another feast. Perhaps it was even more savage than the last. The girl who was slapped, the man with the broken arm, and the man with the empty, gaping eye socket were all highly honored. They got first choice; to them, the delicacies.

It was a night of merry-making, and, at its conclusion, the whole village sent up a prayer to their alien gods to send them more animals who were so stupid that they obligingly killed themselves, in spite of all urging to the contrary.