Review: “The Keeper”, H. Beam Piper, 1957.
This story was published in Venture Science Fiction’s July 1957 issue. It’s the story in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History set furthest in the future. It mentions the Fifth Empire, and no other story in that series is set past the Third Empire.
There is a sad, elegiac quality about this story. Our hero is Raud, the Keeper, the most current holder of that hereditary title. And, since he has no children, he will be the last Keeper of the Crown.
Raud lives by himself in the woods with advancing glaciers, “the white front of the Ice-Father”, in sight. Raud is getting old but reminds himself not to descend to self-pity but to be proud to be the Keeper. Going through the woods, he occasionally stops to look at the remains of ancient buildings, evidence that this area used to have people living in it. His only companions are his dogs Brave and Bold. Raud trades skin and furs for his upkeep. He lives in a windowless house, lit entirely by lumicon, something he traded a Southron for years ago. Like his vitality, its light is dimming.
He gets visitor when Vahr Farg’s son shows up in an airboat with some “Strangers from the Stars”. Raud considers the man a “worthless youth, lazy and stupid and said to be a coward.” The strangers are passengers from a starship and, unlike Raud with his chemically powered guns (the usual weapons in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History), they carry negatron pistols. They are “Empire people”.
Raud offers food to them but apologies for his simple fare. Vahr says they, of course, don’t want to eat the swill of a cur like him. One of the visitors hits Vahr and shouts for him to shut up. The man is Salvadro, and he offers to have his companion, Dranigo, prepare a meal for them. They are from Dremna, a “Great World”.
There are some language difficulties, but Dranigo says they are “people whose work it is to learn things”, and they want to know about the people who used to live in this area. Raud says,
“I have a very ancient thing, here in this house. It was worn, long ago, by great kings. Their names, and the name of their people, are lost, but the Crown remains.”
Dranigo says they have heard of the Crown, and Raud shows it to them and says it was old before the Ice-Father came.
Vahr inserts himself and says everybody knows the Ice-Father has been there forever. The two men from Dremna say Vahr is a fool who thinks the world began with his grandfather. Then Raud asks the men how old they think it is.
“Not more than two thousand years . . . The glaciation hadn’t started in the time of the Third Empire. There is no record of this planet during the Fourth, but by the beginning of the Fifth Empire, less than a thousand years ago, things here were very much as they are now.”
Salvadro then gives a brief explanation of ice ages and notes that interglacial periods can last 15,000 to 20,000 years. Raud says he hasn’t heard that before. He supposes the Crown came to the planet when the first starships did. Salvadro and Dranigo look at each other significantly. The men look at the Crown under the new lumicron they brought. It has a huge diamond on it.
It’s Pre-Interstellar work, says Dranigo. Salvadro and Dranigo ask Raud what he knows of the Crown. Raud heard it came from a city to the north and before that it came from overseas from Brinn. Salvadro asks Dranigo if that could be Britain. Possibly, Dranigo replies. Britain was the last nation to join the Terran Federation in the Third Century Pre-Interstellar.
Savadro tells Raud the Crown was made on the world where the first starships were made, Terra. Raud lives on Terra, the world where Man was born. Draud is surprised his “old, forgotten” world is that world.
Drangio asks Draud who will take care of the Crown when he is dead. They ask to take the Crown away, back to Dremna, and guard it. Draud is shocked at the suggestion he would betray his trust: “This is the Crown, and I am the Keeper; I cannot part with it as long as there is life in me.” Is it going to be put on his funeral pyre, asks Drangio, and Salvadro asks Draud if he thinks they will just throw it away after they are tired of it? It’s worth 20,000 imperial credits. They will buy it from Draud, but he is insulted at that suggestion.
The two men from Dremna say they had no intent of insulting him. They will be going on a trade mission to the west and will come back and ask him to think about their offer.
The next day, Draud goes off with Brave to hunt. When he returns to his home, he finds it has been broken into. Bold killed one of the intruders and was shot dead. Draud knows it was Vahr and three deserters off a Southron ship.
They have the Crown, and he goes off to pursue them.
The men move toward the glacier and have a dog sled. There is a snowstorm, and Draud considers stopping for a rest at night or attacking the camp at night and killing all four men. But the Government Police might get involved. They would take the word of Southrons over his and believe a claim the Crown was theirs. Though they seem good men, Salvadro and Dranigo might use the opportunity to steal the Crown.
Daud also has only a single-shot rifle, a knife, and a hatchet. They have two rifles, one an automatic, and, probably, three negatron pistols. Draud decides to get on the glacier that night and wait for the men to climb it and kill them one at a time. He knows the negatrons only have a range of about “five hundred paces”. Draud and Brave climb the glacier and wait. But he finds the men, using the negatron pistols to blast a path up the glacier instead of slowly hacking their way up like him, are on the glacier before him.
He stalks them and eventually gets within rifle range of their camp. He digs a sleeping hole and builds a snow breastwork on an ice ridge.
Draud does manage to kill the men one by one, but, in the fight, Brave dies attacking one of the men.
“Well, and so? Brave had been the Keeper’s dog. He had died for the Crown, and that had been his duty. If he could have saved the Crown by giving his own life, Raud would have died too.”
As he makes his way off the glacier, an airboat shows up and offers him a ride to Government House in Long Valley Town. There he asks if the ship carrying the Starfolk are back and gives their names. He’s told he’s getting a bit above himself. That’s Prince Salsavadran and the Lord Dranigrastan to him. Still, after hearing Daud has something for them, a clerk radios the ship they are on. They say they will immediately return to meet him.
When they show up three hours later, he announces he will sell them the Crown.
“I am not fit to be Keeper any longer. I lost it. It was stolen from me, the day after I saw you, and I have only yesterday gotten it back. Both my dogs were killed, too. I can no longer keep it safe. Better that you take it with you to Dremna, away from this world where it was made. I have thought, before, that this world and I are both old and good for nothing any more.”
Dranigo honors him by saying,
“This world may be old, Keeper . . . but it is the Mother-World, Terra, the world that sent Man to the Stars. And you— when you lost the Crown, you recovered it again.”
Maybe so, says Draud, but he might not be able to recover the Crown next time. Too many people will now know the Crown is valuable and will kill him for it.
Daud is paid the offered place, and the Prince and Lord offer to fly him home. Raud replies he has no home. That was the Keeper’s Home. He will stay at Government House for now. Perhaps he will buy a house and
“find some woman who had lost her man, who would do his work for him, and pay somebody to take care of me”. Perhaps he will hide his money, as he did with the Crown, in a crypt and get some new dogs.
It is possible to see some autobiographical elements in Piper’s story. Written in 1956, Piper, like the Keeper, had become superannuated when, after nearly 40 years working there, he was laid off from the railroad. His mother had died recently, and Piper had lived with her all his life. The Keeper had Brave and Bold for constant domestic companions as Piper had had his mother. The Keeper ponders finding a woman. Piper had already found his woman and was leaving Pennsylvania and go with her to Paris.
John F. Carr, in Typewriter Killer, says this story is indicative of “Piper’s cyclical and pessimistic view of civilization”. Man’s home is all but forgotten as a backwater, and Four Empires of man have fallen already.