The Currents of Space (Page 3)

MYIILv~r TERENS was in the act of removing a book-film from its place on the shelf when the door-signal sounded. The rather pudgy outlines of his face had been set in lines of thought, but now these vanished and changed into the more usual expression of bland caution. He brushed one hand over his thinning, ruddy hair and shouted, "One minute."

He replaced the film and pressed the contact that allowed the covering section to spring back into place and become indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. To the simple millworkers and farm hands he dealt with, it was a matter of vague pride that one of their own number, by birth at any rate, should own films. It lightened, by tenuous reflection, the unrelieved dusk of their own minds. And yet it would not do to display the films openly.

The sight of them would have spoiled things. It would have frozen their none too articulate tongues. They might boast of their Townman's books, but the actual presence of them before their eyes would have made Terens seem too much the Squire. There were, of course, the Squires as well. It was unlikely in the extreme that any of them would visit him socially at his house, but should one of them enter, a row of films in sight would be injudicious. He was a Townman and custom gave him certain privileges but it would never do to flaunt them.

He shouted again, "I'm coming!"

This time he stepped to the door, closing the upper seam of his tunic as he went. Even his clothing was somewhat Squirelike. Sometimes he almost forgot he had been born on Florina.

Valona March was on the doorstep. She bent her knees and ducked her head in respectful greeting.

Terens threw the door wide. "Come in, Valona. Sit down. Surely it's past curfew. I hope the patrollers didn't see you."

"I don't think so, Townman."

"Well, let's hope that's so. You've got a bad record, you know." "Yes, Townman. I am very grateful for what you have done for me in the past."

"Never mind. Here, sit down. Would you like something to eat or drink?"

She seated herself, straight-backed, at the edge of a chair and shook her head. "No, thank you, Townman. I have eaten."

It was good form among the villagers to offer refreshment. It was bad form to accept. Terens knew that. He didn't press her.

He said, "Now what's the trouble, Valona? Rik again?" Valona nodded, but seemed at a loss for further explanation. Terens said, "Is he in trouble at the mill?"

"No, Townman."

"Headaches again?"

"No, Townman."

Terens waited, his light eyes narrowing and growing sharp.

"Well, Valona, you don't expect me to guess your trouble, do you? Come, speak out or I can't help you. You do want help, I suppose.". -

She said, "Yes, Townman," then burst out, "How shall I tell you, Townman? It sounds almost crazy."

Terens had an impulse to pat her shoulder, but he knew she would shrink from the touch. She sat, as usual, with her large hands buried as far as might be in her dress. He noticed that her blunt, strong fingers were intertwined and slowly twisting.

He said, "Whatever it is, I will listen."

"Do you remember, Townman, when I came to tell you about the City doctor and what he said?"

"Yes, I do, Valona. And I remember I told you particularly that you were never to do anything like that again without consulting me. Do you remember that?"

She opened her eyes wide. She needed no spur to recollect his anger. "I would never do such a thing again, Townman. It's just that I want to remind you that you said you would do everything to help me keep Rik."

"And so I will. Well, then, have the patrollers been asking about him?"

"No. Oh, Townman, do you think they might?"

"I'm sure they won't." He was losing patience. "Now, come, Valona, tell me what is wrong."

Her eyes clouded. "Townman, he says he will leave me. I want you to stop him."

"Why does he want to leave you?"

"He says he is remembering things."

Interest leaped into Terens' face. He leaned forward and almost he reached out to grip her hand. "Remembering things? What things?"

Terens remembered the day Rik had first been found. He had seen the youngsters clustered near one of the irrigation ditches just outside the village. They had raised their shrill voices to call him.

"Townman! Townman!"

He had broken into a run. "What's the matter, Rasie?" He had made it his business to learn the youngsters' names when he came to town. That went well with the mothers and made the first month or two easier.

Rasie was looking sick. He said, "Looky here, Townman."

He was pointing at something white and squirming, and it was Rik. The other boys were yelling at once in confused explanation. Terens managed to understand that they were playing some game that involved running, hiding and pursuing. They were intent on telling him the name of the game, its progress, the point at which they had been interrupted, with a slight subsidiary argument as to exactly which individual or side was "winning." All that didn't matter, of course.

Rasie, the twelve-year-old black-haired one, had heard the whimpering and had approached cautiously. He had expected an animal, perhaps a field rat that would make good chasing. He had found 131k.

All the boys were caught between an obvious sickness and an equally obvious fascination at the strange sight. It was a grown human being, nearly naked, chin wet with drool, whimpering and crying feebly, arms and legs moving about aimlessly. Faded blue eyes shifted in random fashion out of a face that was covered with a grown stubble. For a moment the eyes caught those of Terens and seemed to focus. Slowly the man's thumb came up and inserted itself into his mouth.

One of the children laughed. "Looka him, Townman. He's finger-sucking."

The sudden shout jarred the prone figure. His face reddened and screwed up. A weak whining, unaccompanied by tears, sounded but his thumb remained where it was. It showed wet and pink in contrast to the rest of the dirt-smeared hand.

Terens broke his own numbness at the sight. He said, "All right, look, fellows, you shouldn't be running around here in the kyrt field. You're damaging the crop and you know what that will mean if the farm hands catch you. Get going, and keep quiet about this. And listen, Rasie, you run to Mr. Jencus and get him to come here."

Ull Jencus was the nearest thing to a doctor the town had. He had passed some time as apprentice in the offices of a real doctor in the City and on the strength of it he had been relieved of duty on the farms or in the mills. It didn't work out too badly. He could take temperatures, administer pills, give injections and, most important, he could tell when some disorder was sufficiently serious to warrant a trip to the City hospital. Without such semiprofessional backing, those unfortunates stricken with spinal meningitis or acute appendicitis might suffer intensively but usually not for long. As it was, the foremen muttered and accused Jencus in everything but words of being an accessory after the fact to a conspiracy of malingering.

Jencus helped Terens lift the man into a scooter cart and, as unobtrusively as they might, carried him into town.

Together they washed off the accumulated and hardened grime and filth. There was nothing to be done about the hair. Jencus shaved the entire body and did what he could by way of physical examination.

Jencus said, "No infection I c'n tell of, Townman. He's been fed. Ribs don't stick out too much. 1 don't know what to make of it. How'd he get out there, d'you suppose, Townman?"

He asked the question with a pessimistic tone as though no one could expect Terens to have the answer to anything. Terens accepted that philosophically. When a village has lost the Townman it has grown accustomed to over a period of nearly fifty years, a newcomer of tender age must expect a transition period of suspicion and distrust. There was nothing personal in it.

Terens said, "I'm afraid I don't know."

"Can't walk, y'know. Can't walk a step. He'd have to be put there. Near's I c'n make out, he might's well be a baby. Everything else seems t'be gone."

"Is there a disease that has this effect?"

"Not's I know of. Mind trouble might do it, but I don't know nothing 'tall about that. Mind trouble I'd send to the City. Y'ever see this one, Townman?"

Terens smiled and said gently, "I've just been here a month." Jencus sighed and reached for his handkerchief. "Yes. Old Townman, he was a fine man. Kept us well, he did. I been here 'most sixty years, and never saw this fella before. Must be from 'nother town."

Jencus was a plump man. He had the look of having been born plump, and if to this natural tendency is added the effect of a largely sedentary life, it is not surprising that he tended to punctuate even short speeches by a puff and a rather futile swipe at his gleaming forehead with his large red handkerchief.

He said, "Don't 'xactly know what t'say t'the patrollers."

The patrollers came all right. It was impossible to avoid that. The boys told their parents; their parents told one another. Town life was quiet enough. Even this would be unusual enough to be worth the telling in every possible combination of informer and informee. And in all the telling, the patrollers could not help but hear.

The patrollers, so called, were members of the Florinian Patrol. They were not natives of Florina and, on the other hand, they were not countrymen of the Squires from the planet Sark. They were simply mercenaries who could be counted on to keep order for the sake of the pay they got and never to be led into the misguidance of sympathy for Florinians through any ties of blood or birth.

There were two of them and one of the foremen from the mill came with them, in the fullness of his own midget authority.

The patrollers were bored and indifferent. A mindless idiot might be part of the day's work but it was scarcely an exciting part. One said to the foreman, "Well, how long does it take you to make an identification? Who is this man?"

The foreman shook his head energetically. "I never saw him, Officer. He's no one around here!"

The patroller turned to Jencus. "Any papers on him?"

"No, sir. He just had a rag 'bout him. Burned it t'prevent infection."

"What's wrong with him?"

"No mind, near's I c'n make out."

At this point Terens took the patrollers aside. Because they were bored they were amenable. The patroller who had been asking the questions put up his notebook and said, "All right, it isn't even worth making a record of. It has nothing to do with us. Get rid of it somehow."

Then they left.

The foreman remained. He was a freckled man, red of hair, with a large and bristly mustache. He had been a foreman of rigid principles for five years and that meant his responsibility for the fulfillment of quota in his mill rested heavily upon him.

"Look here," he said fiercely. "What's to be done about this? The damn folk are so busy talking, they ain't working.~

"Send him t'City hospital, near's I c'n make out," said Jencus, wielding his handkerchief industriously. "Noth'n' I c'n do."

"To the City!" The foreman was aghast. "Who's going to pay? Who'll stand the fees? He ain't none of us, is he?"

"Not's far's I know," admitted Jencus.

"Then why should we pay? Find out who he belongs to. Let his town pay."

"How we going t'find out? Tell me that."

The foreman considered. His tongue licked out and played with the coarse reddish foliage of his upper lip. He said, "Then we'll just have to get rid of him. Like the patroller said."

Terens interrupted. "Look here. What do you mean by that?" The foreman said, "He might as well be dead. It would be a mercy."

Terens said, "You can't kill a living person."

"Suppose you tell me what to do then."

"Can't one of the townpeople take care of him?"

"Who'd want to? Would you?"

Terens ignored the openly insolent attitude. "I've got other work to do."

"So have all the folk. I can't have anyone neglecting mill work to take care of this crazy thing."

Terens sighed, and said without rancor, "Now, Foreman, let's be reasonable. If you don't make quota this quarter I might suppose it's because one of your workers is taking care of this poor fellow, and I'll speak up for you to the Squires. Otherwise I'll just say that I don't know of any reason you couldn't make quota, in case you don't make it."

The foreman glowered. The Towinman had only been here a month, and already he was interfering with men who had lived in town all their lives. Still, he had a card marked with Squire's - marks. It wouldn't do to stand too openly against him too long. He said, "But who'd take him?" A horrible suspicion smote him. "I can't. I got three kids of my own and my wife ain't well." "I didn't suggest that you should."

Terens looked out the window. Now that the patrollers had left, the squirming, whispering crowd had gathered closer about the Townman's house. Most were youngsters, too young to be working, others were farm hands from the nearer farms. A few were millworkers, away from their shifts.

Terens saw the big girl at the very edge of the crowd. He had noticed her often in the past month. Strong, competent, and hard-working. Good natural intelligence hidden under that unhappy expression. If she were a man she might have been chosen for Townman's training. But she was a woman; parents dead, and plain enough she was to preclude romantic side interests. A lone woman, in other words, and likely to remain so.

He said, "What about her?"

The foreman looked, then roared, "Damn it. She ought to be at work."

"All right," soothed Terens. "What's her name?"

"That's Valona March."

"That's right. I remember now. Call her in."

From that moment Terens had made himself an unofficial guardian of the pair. He had done what he could to obtain addstional food rations for her, extra clothing coupons and whatever else was required to allow two adults (one unregistered) to live on the income of one. He had been instrumental in helping her obtain training for Rik at the kyrt mills. He had intervened to prevent greater punishment on the occasion of Valona's quarrel with a section head. The death of the City doctor had made it unnecessary for him to attempt further action there than he had taken, but he had been ready.

It was natural for Valona to come to him in all her troubles, and he was waiting now for her to answer his question.

Valona was still hesitating. Finally she said, "He says everyone in the world will die."

Terens looked startled. "Does he say how?"

"He says he doesn't know how. He just says he remembers that from before he was like, you know, like he is. And he says he remembers he had an important job, but I don't understand what it is."

"How does he describe it?"

"He says he an-analyzes Nothing with a capital N."

Valona waited for comment, then hastened to explain, "Analyze means taking something apart like-"

"I know what it means, girl." Terens remained lost.

Valona watched him anxiously. "Do you know what he means, Townman?"

"Perhaps, Valona."

"But, Townman, how can anyone do anything to Nothing?"

Terens got to his feet. He smiled briefly. "Why, Valona, don't you know that everything in all the Galaxy is mostly Nothing?"

No light of understanding dawned on Valona, but she accepted that. The Townman was a very educated man. With an unexpected twinge of pride, she was suddenly certain that her Rik was even more educated.

"Come." Terens was holding his hand out to her.

She said, "Where are we going?"

"Well, where's Rik?"

"Home," she said. "Sleeping."

"Good. I'll take you there. Do you want the patrollers to find you on the street alone?"

The village seemed empty of life in the nighttime. The lights along the single street that split the area of workers' cabins in two gleamed without glare. There was a hint of rain in the air, but only of that light warm rain that fell almost every night. There was no need to take special precautions against it.

Valona had never been out so late on a working evening and it was frightening. She tried to shrink away from the sound of her own footsteps, while listening for the possible distant step of the patrollers.

Terens said, "Stop trying to tiptoe, Valona. rm with you."

His voice boomed in the quiet and Valona jumped. She hurried forward in response to his urging.

Valona's hut was as dark as the rest and they stepped in gingerly. Terens had been born and brought up in just such a hut and though he had since lived on Sark and now occupied a house with three rooms and plumbing, there was still something of a nostalgia about the barrenness of its interior. One room was all that was required, a bed, a chest of drawers, two chairs, a smooth poured-cement floor, a closet in one corner.

There was no need for kitchen facilities, since all meals were eaten at the mill, nor for a bathroom, since a line of community outhouses and shower cells ran along the space behind the houses. In the mild, unvarying climate, windows were not adapted for protection against cold and rain. All four walls were pierced by screened openings and eaves above were sufficient ward against the nightly windless sprinkles.

In the flare of a little pocket light which he held cupped in one palm Terens noted that one corner of the room was marked off by a battered screen. He remembered getting it for Valona rather recently when Rik had become too little of a child or too much of a man. He could hear the regular breathing of sleep behind it.

He nodded his head in that direction. "Wake him, Valona."

Valona tapped on the screen. "Rik! Rik, baby!"

There was a little cry.

"It's only Lona," said Valona. They rounded the screen and Terens played his little light upon their own faces, then upon Rik.

Rik threw an arm up against the glare. "What's the matter?"

Terens sat down on the edge of the bed. Rik slept in the standard cottage bed, - he noted. He had obtained for Valona an old, rather rickety cot at the very first, but she had reserved that for herself.

"Rik," he said, "Valona says you're beginning to remember things."

"Yes, Townman." Rik was always very humble before the Townman, who was the most important man he had ever seen. Even the mill superintendent was polite to the Townman. 111k repeated the scraps his mind had gathered during the day.

Terens said, "Have you remembered anything else since you told this to Valona?"

"Nothing else, Towriman."

Terens kneaded the fingers of one hand with those of the other. "All right, Rik. Go back to sleep."

Valona followed him out of the house. She was trying hard to keep her face from twisting and the back of one rough hand slid across her eyes. "Will he have to leave me, Townman?"

Terens took her hands and said gravely, "You must be a grown woman, Valona. He will have to come with me for just a short while but I'll bring him back."

"And after that?"

"I don't know. You must understand, Valona. Right now it is the most important thing in all the world that we find out more about Bik's memories."

Valona said suddenly, "You mean everybody on Florina might die, the way he says?"

Terens' grip tightened. "Don't ever say that to anyone, Valona, or the patrollers may take Rik away forever. I mean that."

He turned away and walked slowly and thoughtfully back to his house without really noticing that his hands were trembling. He tried futilely to sleep and after an hour of that he adjusted the narco-field. It was one of the few pieces of Sark he had brought with him when he first returned to Florina to become Townman. It fitted about his skull like a thin black felt cap. He adjusted the controls to five hours and closed contact.

He had time to adjust himself comfortably in bed before the delayed response shorted the conscious centers of his cerebrum and blanketed him into instantaneous, dreamless sleep.