The Currents of Space (Page 11)
MYIILYN TEBENS was not a man of action. He told himself that as an excuse, since now, leaving the spaceport, he found his mind paralyzed.
He had to pick his pace carefully. Not too slowly, or he would seem to be dawdling. Not too quickly, or he would seem to be running. Just briskly, as a patroller would walk, a patroller who was about his business and ready to enter his ground-car.
If only he could enter a ground-car! Driving one, unfortunately, did not come within the education of a Florinian, not even a Florinian Townman, so he tried to think as he walked and could not. He needed silence and leisure.
And he felt almost too weak to walk. He might not be a man of action but he had acted quickly now for a day and a night and part of another day. It had used up his lifetime's supply of nerve.
Yet he dared not stop.
If it were night he might have had a few hours to think. But it was early afternoon.
If he could drive a ground-car he could put the miles between himself and the City. Just long enough to think a bit before deciding on the next step. But he had only his legs.
If he could think. That was it. If he could think. If he could suspend all motion, all action. If he could catch the universe between instants of time, order it to halt, while he thought things through. There must be some way.
He plunged into the welcome shade of Lower City. He walked stiffly, as he had seen the patrollers walk. He swung his shock stick in a firm grip. The streets were bare. The natives were huddling in their shacks. So much the better.
The Townman chose his house carefully. It would be best to choose one of the better ones, one with patches of colored plastic briquets and polarized glass in the windows. The lower orders were sullen. They had less to lose. An "upper man" would be falling over himself to help.
He walked up a short path to such a house. It was set back from the street, another sign of affluence. He knew he would have no need of pounding the door or breaking it in. There had been a noticeable movement at one window as he walked up the ramp. (How generations of necessity enabled a Florinian to smell the approach of a patroller.) The door would open.
It did open.
A young girl opened it, her eyes white-rimmed circles. She was gawky in a dress whose frills showed a determined effort on the part of her parents to uphold their status as something more that the ordinary run of "Florinian trash." She stood aside to let him pass, her breath coming quickly between parted lips.
The Townman motioned to her to shut the door. "Is your f ather here, girl?"
She screamed, "Pa!" then gasped, "Yes, sir!"
"Pa" was moving in apologetically from anothei~ room. He came slowly. It was no news to him that a patroller was at the door. It was simply safer to let a young girl admit him. She was less apt to be knocked down out of hand than he himself was, if the patroller happened to be angry.
"Your name?" asked the Townman.
"Jacof, if it please you, sir."
The Townman's uniform had a thin-sheeted notebook in one of its pockets. The Townman opened it, studied it briefly, made a crisp check mark and said, "Jacof! Yes! I want to see every member of the household. Quickly!"
If he could have found room for any emotion but one of hopeless oppression, Terens would almost have enjoyed himself. He was not immune to the seductive pleasures of authority.
They filed in. A thin woman, worried, a child of about two years wriggling in her arms. Then the girl who had admitted him and a younger brother.
"Everyone, sir," said Jacof humbly.
"Can I tend the baby?" asked the woman anxiously. "It's her nap time. I was putting her to bed." She held the young child out as though the sight of young innocence might melt a patroller's heart.
The Townman did not look at her. A patroller, he imagined, would not have, and he was a patroller. He said, "Put it down and give it a sugar sucker to keep it quiet. Now, you! Jacof!"
"You're a responsible boy, aren't you?" A native of whatever age was, of course, a "boy."
"Yes, sir." Jacof's eyes brightened and his shoulders lifted a trifle. "I'm a clerk in the food-processing center. I've had mathematics, long division. I can do logarithms."
Yes, the Townman thought, they've shown you how to use a table of logarithms and taught you how to pronounce the word.
He knew the type. The man would be prouder of his logarithms than a Squireling of his yacht. The polaroid in his windows was the consequence of his logarithms and the tinted briquets advertised his long division. His contempt for the uneducated native would be equal to that of the average Squire for all natives and his hatred would be more intense since he had to live among them and was taken for one of them by his betters.
"You believe in the law, don't you, boy, and in the good Squires?" The Towuman maintained the impressive fiction of consulting his notebook.
"My husband is a good man," burst in the woman volubly. "He hasn't ever been in trouble. He doesn't associate with trash. And I don't. No more do the children. We always-"
Terens waved her down. "Yes. Yes. Now look, boy, I want you to sit right here and do what I say. I want a list of everyone you know about on this block. Names, addresses, what they do, and what kind of boys they are. Especially the last. If there's one of these troublemakers, I want to know. We're going to clean up. Understand?"
"Yes, sir. Yes, sir. There's Husting first of all. He's down the block a way. He-"
"Not like that, boy. Get him a piece of paper, you. Now you sit there and write it all down. Every bit. Write it slowly because I can't read native chicken tracks,"
"I have a trained writing hand, sir."
"Let's see it, then."
Jacof bent to his task, hand moving slowly. His wife looked over his shoulder.
Terens spoke to the girl who had let him in. "Go to the window and let me know if any other patrollers come this way. I'll want to speak to them, Don't you call them. Just tell me."
And then, finally, he could relax. He had made a momentarily
• secure niche for himself in the midst of danger.
Except for the noisy sucking of the baby in the corner, there was reasonable silence. He would be warned of the enemy's approach in time for a fighting chance at escape.
Now he could think.
In the first place, his role as patroller was about over. There were undoubtedly road blocks at all possible exits from the town, and they knew he could use no means of transportation more complicated than a diamagnetic scooter. It would not be long before it would dawn on the search-rusty patrollers that only by a systematic quartering of the town, block by block and house by house, could they be sure of their man.
When they finally decided that, they would undoubtedly start at the outskirts and work inward. If so, this house would be among the first to be entered, so his time was particularly limited.
Until now, despite its black and silver conspicuousness, the patroller uniform had been useful. The natives themselves had not questioned it. They had not stopped to see his pale Floninian face; they had not studied his appearance. The uniform had been enough.
Before long the pursuing hounds would find that fact dawning upon them. It would occur to them to broadcast instructions to all natives to hold any patroller unable to show proper identification, particularly one with a white skin and sandy hair. Temporary identifications would be passed out to all legitimate patrollers. Rewards would be offered. Perhaps only one native in a hundred would be courageous enough to tackle the uniform no
matter how patently false the occupant was. One in a hundred would be enough.
So he would have to stop being a patroller.
That was one thing. Now another. He would be safe nowhere on Florina from now on. Killing a patroller was the ultimate crime and in fifty years, if he could elude capture so long, the chase would remain hot. So he would have to leave Florina.
Well, he gave himself one more day of life. This was a generous estimate. It assumed the patrollers to be at maximum stupidity and himself in a state of maximum luck.
In one way this was an advantage. A mere twenty-four hours of life was not much to risk. It meant he could take chances no sane man could possibly take.
He stood up.
Jacof looked up from his paper. "I'm not quite done, sir. I'm writing very carefully."
"Let me see what you have written."
He looked at the paper handed him and said, "It is enough. If other patrollers should come, don't waste their time saying that you have already made a list. They are in a hurry and may have other tasks for you. Just do as they say. Are there any coming now?"
The girl at the window said, "No, sir. Shall I go out in the street and look?"
"It's not necessary. Let's see now. Where is the nearest elevator?"
"It's about a quarter of a mile to the left, sir, as you leave the house. You can-"
"Yes, yes. Let me out."
A squad of patrollers turned into the street just as the door of the elevator ground into place behind the Townman. He could feel his heart pound. The systematic search was probably starting, and they were at his heels.
A minute later, heartbeat still drumming, he stepped out of the elevator into Upper City. There would be no cover here. No pillars. No cementalloy hiding him from above.
He felt like a moving black dot among the glare of the garish buildings. He felt visible for two miles on every side and for five miles up in the sky. There seemed to be large arrows pointing to him.
There were no patrollers in view. The Squires who passed looked through him. If a patroller was an object of fear to a Florinian, he was an object of nothing-at-all to a Squire. If anything would save him, that would.
He had a vague notion of the geography of Upper City. Somewhere in this section was City Park. The most logical step would have been to ask directions, the next most logical to enter any moderately tall building and look out from several of the upperstory terraces. The first alternative was impossible. No patroller could possibly need directions. The second was too risky. Inside a building, a patroller would be more conspicuous. Too conspicuous.
He simply struck out in the direction indicated by his memory of the maps of Upper City he had seen on occasion. It served well enough. It was unmistakably City Park that he came across in five minutes' time.
City Park was an artificial patch of greenery about one hundred acres in area. On Sark itself, City Park had an exaggerated reputation for many things from bucolic peace to nightly orgies. On Florina, those who had vaguely heard of it imagiped it ten to a hundred times its actual size and a hundred to a thousand times its actual luxuriance.
The reality was pleasant enough. In Florina's mild climate it was green all year round. It had its patches of lawn, wooded areas and stony grottoes. It had a little pool with decorative fish in it and a larger pooi for children to paddle in. At night it was aflame with colored illumination till the light rain started. It was between twilight and the rain that it was most alive. There was dancing, trimensional shows, and couples losing themselves along the winding walks.
Terens had never actually been inside it. He found its artificiality repellent when he entered the Park. He knew that the soil and rocks he stepped on, the water and trees around him, all rested on a dead-flat cementalloy bottom and it annoyed him. He thought of the kyrt fields, long and level, and the mountain ranges of the south. He despised the aliens who had to build toys for themselves in the midst of magnificence.
For half an hour Terens tramped the walks aimlessly. What he had to do would have to be done in City Park. Even here it might be impossible. Elsewhere it was impossible.
No one saw him. No one was conscious of him. He was sure of that. Let them ask the Squires and Squirettes who passed him, "Did you see a patroller in the Park yesterday?"
They could only stare. They might as well be asked whether they had seen a tree midge skitter across the path.
The Park was too tame. He felt panic begin to grow. He made his way up a staircase between boulders and began descending into the cuplike hollow circled by small caves designed to shelter couples caught in the nightly rainfall. (More were caught than could be accounted for by chance alone.)
And then he saw what he was looking for.
A man! A Squire, rather. Stepping back and forth quickly. Smoking the stub of a cigarette with sharp drags, cramming it into an ash recess, where it lay quietly for a moment, then vanished with a quick flash. Consulting a pendant watch.
There was no one else in the hollow. It was a place made for the evening and night.
The Squire was waiting for someone. So much was obvious. Terens looked about him. No one was following him up the stairs.
There might be other stairs. There were sure to be. No matter. He could not let the chance go.
He stepped down toward the Squire. The Squire did not see him, of course, until Terens said, "If you'll pardon me?"
It was respectful enough, but a Squire is not accustomed to having a patroller touch the crook of his elbow in however respectful a fashion.
"What the hell?" he said.
Terens abandoned neither the respect nor the urgency in his tone. (Keep him talking. Keep his eyes on yours for just half a minute!) He said, "This way, sir. It is in connection with the City-wide search for the native murderer."
"What are you talking about?"
"It will take just a moment."
Unobtrusively Terens had drawn his neuronic whip. The
Squire never zaw it. It buzzed a little and the Squire strained into rigor and toppled.
The Towriman had never raised a hand against a Squire before. He was surprised at how sick and guilty he felt.
There was still no one in sight. He dragged the wooden body, with its glazed and staring eyes, into the nearest cave. He dragged it to the cave's shallow end.
He stripped the Squire, yanking clothing off the stiffened arms and legs with difficulty. He stepped out of his own dusty, sweat-stained patroller uniform and climbed into the Squire's underclothing. For the first time he felt kyrt fabric with some part of himself beside his fingers.
Then the rest of the clothing, and the Squire's skullcap. The last was necessary. Skulicaps were not entirely fashionable among the younger set but some wore them, this Squire luckily among them. To Terens it was a necessity as otherwise his light hair would make the masquerade impossible. He pulled the cap down tightly, covering his ears.
Then he did what had to be done. The killing of a patroller was, he suddenly realized, not the ultimate crime after all.
He adjusted his blaster to maximum dispersion and turned it on the unconscious Squire. In ten seconds only a ch~trred mass was left. It would delay identification, confuse the pursuers.
He reduced the patroller's uniform to a powdery white ash with the blaster and clawed out of the heap blackened silver buttons and buckles. That, too, would make the chase harder. Perhaps he was buying only an additional hour, but that, too, was worth it.
And now he would have to leave without delay. He paused a moment just outside the mouth of the cave to sniff. The blaster worked cleanly. There was only the slightest odor of burned flesh and the light breeze would clear it in a few moments.
He was walking down the steps when a young girl passed him on the way up. For a moment he dropped his eyes out of habit. She was a Lady. He lifted them in time to see that she was young and quite good-looking, and in a hurry.
His jaws set. She wouldn't find him, of course. But she was late, or he wouldn't have been staring at his watch so. She might think he had grown tired of waiting and had left. He walked a trifle faster. He didn't want her returning, pursuing him breathlessly, asking if he had seen a young man.
He left the Park, walking aimlessly. Another half hour passed.
What now? He was no longer a patroller, he was a Squire.
But what now?
He stopped at a small square in which a fountain was centered in a plot of lawn. To the water a small quantity of detergent had been added so that it frothed and foamed in gaudy iridescence.
He leaned against the railing, back to the western sun, and, bit by bit, slowly, he dropped blackened silver into the fountain.
He thought of the girl who had passed him on the steps as he did so. She had been very young. Then he thought of Lower City and the momentary spasm of remorse left him.
The silver remnants were gone and his hands were empty. Slowly he began searching his pockets, doing his best to make it seem casual.
The contents of the pockets were not particularly unusual. A booklet of key slivers, a few coins, an identification card. (Holy Sark! Even the Squires carried them. But then, they didn't have to produce them for every patroller that came along.)
His new name, apparently, was Aistare Deamone. He hoped he wouldn't have to use it. There were only ten thousand men, women and children in Upper City. The chance of his meeting one among them who knew Deamone personally was not large, but it wasn't insignificant either.
He was twenty-nine. Again he felt a rising nausea as he thought of what he had left in the cave, and fought it. A Squire was a Squire. How many twenty-nine-year-old Florinians had been done to death at their hands or by their directions? How many nine-year-old Florinians?
He had an address, too, but it meant nothing to him. His knowledge of Upper City geography was rudimentary.
A color portrait of a young boy, perhaps three, in pseudotrimension. The colors flashed as he drew it out of its container, faded progressively as he returned it. A young son? A nephew? There had been the girl in the Park so it couldn't be a son, could it?
Or was he married? Was the meeting one of those they called
"clandestine?" Would such a meeting take place in daylight? Why not, under certain circumstances?
Terens hoped so. If the girl were meeting a married man she would not quickly report his absence. She would assume he had not been able to evade his wife. That would give him time.
No, it wouldn't. Instant depression seized him. Children playing hide-and-seek would stumble on the remains and run screaming. It was bound to happen within twenty-four hours.
He turned to the pocket's contents once more. A pocket-copy license as yacht pilot. He passed it by. All the richer Sarkites owned yachts and piloted them. It was this century's fad. Finally, a few strips of Sarkite credit vouchers. Now those might be temporarily useful.
It occurred to him that he hadn't eaten since the night before at the Baker's place. How quickly one could grow conscious of hunger.
Suddenly he turned back to the yacht license. Wait, now, the yacht wasn't in use now, not with the owner dead. And it was his yacht. Its hangar number was z6, at Port 9. Well.
Where was Port 9? He hadn't the slightest notion.
He leaned his forehead against the coolness of the smooth railing around the fountain. What now? What now?
The voice startled him.
"Hello," it said. "Not sick?"
Terens looked up. It was an older Squire. He was smoking a long cigarette containing some aromatic leaf while a green stone of some sort hung suspended from a gold wristband. His expression was one of kindly interest that astonished Terens into a moment of speechlessness, until he remembered. He was one of the clan himself now. Among themselves, Squires might well be decent human beings.
The Townman said, "Just resting. Decided to take a walk and lost track of time. I'm afraid I'm late for an appointment now."
He waved his hand in a wry gesture. He could imitate the Sarkite accent fairly well from long association but he didn't make the mistake of trying to exaggerate it. Exaggeration was easier to detect than insufficiency.
The other said, "Stuck without a skeeter, hey?" He was the older man, amused by the folly of youth.
"No skeeter," admitted Terens.
"Use mine," came the instant offer. "It's parked right outside. You can set the controls and send it back here when you're through. I won't be needing it for the next hour or so."
To Terens, that was almost ideal. The skeeters were fast and skittery as chain lightning, could outspeed and outmaneuver any patroller ground-car. It fell short of ideal only in that Terens could no more drive the skeeter than he could fly without it.
"From here to Sark," he said. He knew that piece of Squire slang for "thanks," and threw it in. "I think I'll walk. It isn't far to Port 9."
"No, it isn't far," agreed the other.
That left Terens no better off than before. He tried again. "Of course, I wish I were closer. The walk to Kyrt Highway is healthy enough by itself."
"Kyrt Highway? What's that got to do with it?"
Was he looking queerly at Terens? It occurred to the Town-man, suddenly, that his clothing probably lacked the proper fitting. He said quickly, "Wait! I'm twisted at that. I've got myself crossed up walking. Let's see now." He looked about vaguely.
"Look. You're on Recket Road. All you have to do is go down to Triffis and turn left, then follow it into the port." He had pointed automatically.
Terens smiled. "You're right. I'm going to have to stop dreaming and start thinking. From here to Sark, sir."
"You can still use my skeeter."
"Kind of you, but..."
Terens was walking away, a bit too quickly, waving his hand. The Squire stared after him.
Perhaps tomorrow, when they found the corpse in the rocks and began searching, the Squire might think of this interview again. He would probably say, "There was something queer about him, if you know what I mean. He had an odd turn of phrase and didn't seem to know where he was. I'll swear he'd never heard of Triffis Avenue."
But that would be tomorrow.
He walked in the direction that the Squire had pointed out. He came to the glittering sign "Triffis Avenue," almost drab against the iridescent orange structure that was its background. He turned left.
Port 9 was alive with youth in yachting costume, which seemed to feature high-peaked hats and hip-bellying breeches. Terens felt conspicuous but no one paid attention to him. The air was full of conversation spiced with terms he did not understand.
He found Booth 26 but waited for minutes before approaching it. He wanted no Squire remaining persistently in its vicinity, no Squire who happened to own a yacht in a nearby booth who would know the real Alstare Deamone by sight and would wonder what a stranger was doing about his ship.
Finally, with the booth's neighborhood apparently safe, he walked over. The yacht's snout peered out from its hangar into the open field about which the booths were placed.' He craned his neck to stare at it.
He had killed three men in the last twelve hours. He had risen from Florinian Townman to patroller, from patroller to Squire. He had come from Lower City to Upper City and from Upper City to a spaceport. To all intents and purposes he owned a yacht, a vessel sufficiently spaceworthy to take him to safety on any inhabited world in this sector of the Galaxy.
There was only one catch.
He could not pilot a yacht.
He was tired to the bone, and hungry to boot. He had come this far, and now he could go no further. He was on the edge of space but there was no way of crossing the edge.
By now the patrollers must have decided he was nowhere in Lower City. They would turn the search to Upper City as soon as they could get it through their thick skulls that a Florinian would dare. Then the body would be found and a new direction would be taken. They would look for an impostor Squire.
And here he was. He had climbed to the farthest niche of the blind alley and with his back to the closed end he could only wait for the faint sounds of pursuit to grow louder and louder until eventually the bloodhounds would be on him.
Thirty-six hours ago the greatest opportunity of his life had been in his hands. Now the opportunity was gone and his life would soon follow.