A Matter of Principle

From Norman Gilbert via The International Save The Pun Foundation [www.punpunpun.com]. This is by Bob Renaud and it is pretty shaggy.

In the waning years of the second millennium after the Pan-Terran War, the remnants of humanity had divided into two classes. The Surfacers were a simple people, primarily farmers, herdsmen and nomadic traders, eking out marginal livings within the monarchies that had evolved from the rule of the strongest. Within the vast network of caverns and tunnels that had been created prior to the War, the Keepers of the Ancient Knowledge devoted their subterranean lives to the preservation and study of science and culture.

At random intervals, the Keepers dispatched one of their numbers to serve as a Teacher for the subjects of the nearest kingdom. Perhaps the greatest of these was Teacher James who, attended by his six Replicas, went out many times in the effort to distribute the Old Knowledge.

Thus did James, with his Replicas drawing his wagon of books, come to be in the realm of Lisus the Elder. James felt trepidation on this occasion, because Lisus was widely known as a swaggering, self-important despot who demanded total subservience, and who was famed (or perhaps infamous) for burning at the stake those who, for reasons seldom told, failed to please him, even to such trivial matters as failing to bow in his presence.

With ill-concealed discomfort, James entered the throne room, to beseech Lisus in the customary manner for permission to teach within his kingdom. He stood silently, his Replicas three at each side, while Lisus surveyed them with sneering contempt. Finally, he stared at James, whose robes, being finer than the coarse tunics of his Replicas, identified him as their leader and Genefather.

“For what purpose are you here, Teacher James?”

“To teach. It is my profession, your Worship.”

“Then we shall begin with a lesson for you, Teacher, in the ways of respect. You will bow low before me, as I require of all in my presence.”

“I beg leave to tell your Highness that I am a citizen of Underearth, and a free man, not one of your subjects. I shall not bow, sire.”

Lisus glared in wide-eyed fury, unaccustomed to such defiance, then bellowed to his royal guards, “Seize this accursed infidel and his Replicas, and take them at once to the courtyard. Bind the Genechildren to the stakes, and pile the kindling high about them, topped by his books, that he may watch them burn as well.

Thus, beneath the midday sun, the Replicas were lashed to the burning stakes, and surrounded by twigs and branches, atop which the ancient volumes were evenly laid. “Now, dog, will you bow before me, or shall I have the torch put to your likenesses and your precious books?”

“Meaning no disrespect, your highness, I simply cannot do as you demand.”

“Before it is done, then, answer but one question. Why can you not afford me the honor of a mere bow, even when I have put everything of yours in such peril?”

“It is a matter of principle, Sire. Your threats cannot have an effect on me because, as the ancient laws wisely say, “Sticks and tomes may bake my clones, but James will never curtsy.”

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