Choke Chain

by Robert Silverberg

Author’s preface

It was the busy month of February, 1956. I was four months away from graduation at Columbia, but by now I was selling stories all over the place, and I was going to classes only when absolutely necessary, spending most of my time holed up in my little room on West 114th St. turning out new material, singly or in collaboration with Randall Garrett. We had sold a second and then a third “Robert Randall” novelet in our series to John Campbell, I had placed stories of my own with Campbell, Bob Lowndes, Larry Shaw, and several other editors, and there was the monthly task of meeting my quota for Howard Browne’s two magazines.

Hardly had I finished “Guardian of the Crystal Gate” for Howard and sold him the “Ralph Burke” story “Stay Out of My Grave,” but I was at work on an 8000-worder that I called “The Price of Air” for him. It saw print in the December, 1956 issue of Fantastic. By then Howard Browne had resigned from Ziff-Davis so he could return to writing mystery novels, and the new editor was Howard’s former associate, Paul Fairman, a much less jovial man with whom I never attained much of a rapport. Fairman kept me on as a staff writer, but it was strictly a business matter, whereas I think the amiable Howard Browne had regarded me as something of an office mascot.

When he published “The Price of Air,” Fairman changed the title to “Choke Chain,” which puzzled me, because I didn’t know what the term meant. Later I discovered that it’s a dog-owner thing. I am a cat-owning sort of person. It is, I suppose, an appropriate enough title for this story, and I have left it in place this time around.

Callisto was supposed to have been just a lark for me, a pleasant stopoff where I could kill time and work up the courage to tackle the big task—Jupiter. I felt that exploring the big, heavy planet was, well, maybe not so grand a thing as my destiny, but yet something I had to do.

There was only one trouble: the immenseness of Jupiter’s unknown wastes scared me. Fear was a new sensation for me. I got as far as Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, a thriving world bigger than Mercury, and suddenly, with great Jupiter looming overhead in the sky like a bloated overripe tomato, I knew I wasn’t ready for it. I’ve been to a lot of places and done a lot of things, and this was the first time I’d ever drawn back from an adventure.

I dallied on Ganymede for a couple of days, not knowing quite where to turn. Then one night in a bar someone hinted to me that something funny might be going on on Jupiter’s largest moon, Callisto, and I set my sights there.

It seemed Callisto had recently clamped down on tourists, had booted out a couple of newspapermen, and had done some other mighty peculiar things, and rumors were spreading wildly about what might be taking place there.

It looked like a fine idea, at the time: go to Callisto, find out what the trouble was, spend a few days putting things in order. It was the kind of jaunt I thrive on, the sort of thing that’s been my specialty since I began roaming the spaceways. By the time I was through on Callisto, I thought I’d have the blood flowing smoothly in my veins again, and I’d feel more like tackling the Big Project: Jupiter.

Only Callisto wasn’t the picnic I thought it would be. It turned out to be something more than a refresher for weary adventurers. I found that out as soon as I got there.

It had been rough to get a passport, but I finally signed on a slow tug as a mechanic, and that was good enough to get me a landing permit for Callisto.

I helped pilot a tugload of heavy crates from Ganymede to its nearby twin moon, Callisto. I didn’t know what was in the crates, I didn’t ask, and I didn’t care. The job was getting me to the place I wanted to get to, and that was what counted.

We reached the satellite in a couple of days, and the skipper put the ship down in a vast, windswept desert of blue-white ammonia snow. As soon as we were down, the captain radioed Callisto City to let them know we were here.

Callisto City is a giant dome, a plastine bubble that covers a fair-sized chunk of Callisto and houses several tens of thousands of colonists. We were outside it, in the snow.

I waited impatiently, staring out the port of the ship at the empty swirls of snow, watching a little convoy of trucks come crawling out of Callisto City like so many black bugs and go rolling through the snow to meet us.

Then they arrived. A gong sounded, and I heard the captain yell, “Into your spacesuits, on the double! Let’s get the cargo loaded extra quick.”

We suited up, and by that time the trucks had arrived. We loaded our cargo aboard them, and one by one they started back to the dome. That was all there was to it. No contact between Callistans and outsiders at all.

When the last crate was swung aboard the last truck, the captain said, “Get back in and let’s blast off!”

I turned to him. “I’m not going. I’m resigning, sir.”

He looked at me blankly, as if I’d just said, “I’m dead, sir.” Finally he said, “You’re what?”

I nodded. “I’m quitting? Right here and now. I’m going to grab one of these cargo trucks back to Callisto City.”

“You can’t leave in the middle of the trip!” he protested. He went on objecting, violently, until I quietly told him he could pocket the rest of my uncollected wages. At that he shut up in a hurry, and gestured for me to get going. These guys are all alike.

I climbed into the rear truck of the convoy, and the startled driver looked at me wide-eyed.

“What the hell are you, buddy? There’s nothing about you on my cargo invoice.”

“I’m just going along for the ride, friend,” I told him softly. “I’m a sightseer. I want to get a look at your fair city.”

“But you can’t—” he objected. I jabbed him in the ribs, once, in exactly the right place, and he subsided immediately.

“Okay, buddy,” he grunted. “Lay off. I’ll take you—but remember, it’s only because you forced me.” He wrinkled his brow in puzzlement. “But it’s beyond me why in blazes anyone would want to get to Callisto that bad —when we’d all give our left ears to get away.”

“It’s my business,” I said.

“Sure, sure,” he said placatingly, afraid of another poke. “Do whatever you damned please. But it’s your funeral—remember that.”

I smiled to myself, and watched the shining dome of Callisto City grow nearer. I was wondering what was going on beneath that peaceful-looking arc of plastine. It didn’t sound very good.

Finally we reached the city, and the truck edged carefully into the airlock. My helmet-window went foggy as the icy air of outside was replaced by the warm atmosphere of Callisto City, and then I saw my fellow truck-drivers climbing down and getting out of their spacesuits, in obvious relief at being able to shuck the bulky, uncomfortable things.

As I slid out of mine, I noticed one very strange thing. All the truck-drivers—every last one—wore curious golden collars around their necks. The collars were almost like dog-collars, thick, made of what looked like burnished bronze. They seemed oddly flexible and solid at the same time, and set in the middle of each was a little meter that kept clicking away, recording some kind of data.

I looked around. There were twenty or thirty Callistans near me, and they all wore the collar. And they all wore the same facial expression, too. The best way to describe it is to call it a beaten look. They were all beaten men, spiritless, frightened—of what?

The intense fluorescent lights from above glinted brightly off the collars. Was wearing them some kind of

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