The Currents of Space (Page 5)
TERENS RECOVERED almost at once. He said, "Out. Quickly!" and began walking.
For a moment he had the impulse to drag the patroller's unconscious body into the shadows behind the pillars that lined the main hall, but there was obviously no time.
They emerged onto the ramp, with the afternoon sun making the world bright and warm about them. The colors of Upper City had shifted to an orange motif.
Valona said anxiously, "Come on!" but Terens caught her elbow.
He was smiling, but his voice was hard and low. He said, "Don't run. Walk naturally and follow me. Hold on to 111k. Don't let him run."
A few steps. They seemed to be moving through glue. Were there sounds behind them from the library? Imagination? Terens did not dare look.
"In here," he said. The sign above the driveway he indicated flickered a bit in the light of afternoon. It didn't compete very well with Florina's sun. It said: Ambulance Entrance.
Up the drive, through a side entrance, and between incredibly white walls. They were blobs of foreign material against the aseptic glassiness of the corridor.
A woman in uniform was looking at them from a distance. She hesitated, frowned, began to approach. Terens did not wait for her. He turned sharply, followed a branch of the corridor, then another one. They passed others in uniform and Terens could imagine the uncertainty they aroused. It was quite unprece dented to have natives wandering about unguarded in the upper levels of a hospital. What did one do?
Eventually, of course, they would be stopped.
So Terens felt his heartbeat step up when he saw the unobtrusive door that said: To Native Levels. The elevator was at their level. He herded Rik and \Talona within and the soft lurch as the elevator dropped was the most delighiful sensation of the day.
There were three kinds of buildings in the City. Most were Lower Buildings, built entirely on the lower level. Workers' houses, ranging up to three stories in height. Factories, bakeries, disposal plants. Others were Upper Buildings: Sarkite homes, theaters, the library, sports arenas. But some few were Doubles, with levels and entrances both below and above; the patroller stations, for instance, and the hospitals.
One could therefore use a hospital to go from Upper City to Lower City and avoid in that manner the use of the large freight elevators with their slow movements and overattentive operators. For a native to do so was thoroughly illegal, of course, but the added crime was a pinprick to those already guilty of assaulting patrollers.
They stepped out upon the lower level. The stark aseptic walls were there still, but they had a faintly haggard appearance as though they were less often scrubbed. The upholstered benches that lined the corridors on the upper level were gone. Most of all there was the uneasy babble of a waiting room filled with wary men and frightened women. A single attendant was attempting to make sense out of the mess, and succeeding poorly.
She was snapping at a stubbled oldster who pleated and unpleated the wrinkled knee of his raveling trousers and who answered all questions in an apologetic monotone.
"Exactly what is your complaint?... How long have you had these pains?... Ever been to the hospital before?.. Now look, you people can't expect to bother us over every little thing. You sit down and the doctor will look at you and give you more medicine."
She cried shrilly, "Next!" then muttered something to herself as she looked at the large timepiece on the wall.
Terens, Valona and Elk were edging cautiously through the crowd. Valona, as though the presence of fellow Florinians had freed her tongue of paralysis, was whispering intensely.
"I had to come, Townman. I was so worried about Rik. I thought you wouldn't bring him back and-"
"How did you get to Upper City, anyway?" demanded Terens over his shoulder, as he shoved unresisting natives to either side.
"I followed you and saw you go up the freight elevator. When it came down I said I was with you and he took me up."
"Just like that."
"I shook him a little."
"Imps of Sark," groaned Terens.
"I had to," explained Valona miserably. "Then I saw the patrollers pointing out a building to you. I waited till they were gone and went there too. Only I didn't dare go inside. I didn't know what to do so I sort of hid until I saw you coming out with the patroller stopping-"
"You people there!" It was the sharp, impatient voice of the receptionist. She was standing now, and the hard rapping of her metal stylus on the cementalloy desk top dominated the gathering and reduced them to a hard-breathing silence.
"Those people trying to leave. Come here. You cannot leave without being examined. There'll be no evading work-days with pretended sick calls. Come back here!"
But the three were out in the half shadow of Lower City. There were the smells and noise of what the Sarkites called the Native Quarter about them and the upper level was once more only a roof above them. But however relieved Valona and 13.1k might feel at being away from the oppressive richness of Sarkite surroundings, Terens felt no lifting of anxiety. They had gone too far and henceforth there might be no safety anywhere.
The thought was still passing through his turbulent mind when Rik called, "Look!"
Terens felt salt in his throat.
It was perhaps the most frightening sight the natives of the Lower City could see. It was like a giant bird floating down through one of the openings in the Upper City. It shut off the sun and deepened the ominous gloom of that portion of the City. But it wasn't a bird. It was one of the armed ground-cars of the patrollers.
Natives yelled and began running. They might have no specific reason to fear, but they scattered anyway. One man, nearly in the path of the car, stepped aside reluctantly. He had been hurrying on his way, intent on some business of his own, when the shadow caught him. He looked about him, a rock of calm in the wildness. He was of medium height, but almost grotesquely broad across the shoulders. One of his shirt sleeves was slit down its length, revealing an arm like another man's thigh.
The broad man was approaching at a heavy half trot. For a moment he paused in passing them, as though with uncertainty. He said in a conversational voice, "Khorov's bakery is second left, beyond the laundry."
He veered back.
Terens said, "Come on."
He was sweating freely as he ran. Through the uproar, he heard the barking orders that came naturally to patroller throats. He threw one look over his shoulder. A half dozen of them were piling out of the ground-car, fanning out. They would have no trouble, he knew. In his damned Townman's uniform, he was as conspicuous as one of the pillars supporting the Upper City.
Two of the patrollers were running in the right direction. He didn't know whether or not they had seen him, but that didn't matter. Both collided with the broad man who had just spoken to Terens. All three were close enough for Terens to hear the broad man's hoarse bellow and the patrollers' sharp cursing. Terens herded Valona and Elk around the corner.
Khorov's bakery was named as such by an almost defaced "worm" of crawling illuminated plastic, broken in half a dozen places, and was made unmistakable by the wonderful odor that filtered through its open door. There was nothing to do but enter, and they did.
An old man looked out from the inner room within which they
could see the flour-obscured gleam of the radar furnaces. He had no chance to ask their business.
Terens began, "A broad man-" He was holding his arms apart in illustration, and the cries of "Patrollers! Patrollers!" began to be heard outside.
The old man said hoarsely, "This way! Quickly!"
Terens held back. "In there?"
The old man said, "This one is a dummy."
First Rik, then Valona, then Terens crawled through the furnace door. There was a faint click and the back wall of the furnace moved slightly and hung freely from the hinges above. They pushed through it and into a small room, dimly lit, beyond.
They waited. Ventilation was bad, and the smell of baking increased hunger without satisfying it. Valona kept smiling at Rik, patting his hand mechanically from time to time. Rik stared back at her blankly. Once in a while he put a hand to his flushed face.
Valona began, "Townman-"
He snapped back in a tight whisper, "Not now, Lona. Please!"
He passed the back of his hand across his forehead, then stared at the dampness of Ms knuckles.
There was a click, magnified by the close confinement of their hiding place. Terens stiffened. Without quite realizing it, he raised clenched fists.
It was the broad man, poking his immense shoulders through the opening. They scarcely fit.
He looked at Terens and was amused. "Come on, man. We're not going to be fighting."
Terens looked at his fists, and let them drop.
The broad man was in markedly poorer condition now than when they had first seen him. His shirt was all but removed from his back and a fresh weal, turning red and purple, marked one cheekbone. His eyes were little and the eyelids crowded them above and below.
He said, "They've stopped looking. If you're hungry, the fare here isn't fancy, but there's enough of it. What do you say?"
It was night in the City. There were lights in the Upper City that lit the sky for miles, but in the Lower City the darkness was
clammy. The shades were drawn tightly across the front of the bakery to hide the illegal, past-curfew lights away from it.
Rik felt better with warm food inside him. His headache began to recede. He fixed his eyes on the broad man's cheek.
Timidly he asked, "Did they hurt you, mister?"
"A little," said the broad one. "It doesn't matter. It happens every day in my business." He laughed, showing large teeth.
"They had to admit I hadn't done anything but I was in their way while they were chasing someone else. The easiest way of getting a native out of the way-" His hand rose and fell, holding an invisible weapon, butt-first.
Rik ffinched away and Valona reached out an anxious, protective arm.
The broad man leaned back, sucking at his teeth to get out particles of food. He said, "I'm Matt Khorov, but they just call me the Baker. Who are you people?"
Terens shrugged. "Well..."
The Baker said, "I see your point. What I don't know won't hurt anyone. Maybe. Maybe. At that, though, you might trust me. I saved you from the patrollers, didn't I?"
"Yes. Thank you." Terens couldn't squeeze cordiality into his voice. He said, "How did you know they were after us? There were quite a few people running."
The other smiled. "None of them had the faces you three were wearing. Yours could have been ground up and used for chalk."
Terens tried to smile in return. He didn't succeed well. "rm not sure I know why you risked your life. Thank you, anyway. It isn't much, just saying 'Thank you,' but there's nothing else I can do right now."
"You don't have to do anything." The Baker's vast shoulders leaned back against the wall. "I do this as often as I can. It's nothing personal. If the patrollers are after someone I do my best for him. I hate the patrollers."
Valona gasped. "Don't you get into trouble?"
"Sure. Look at this." He put a finger gently on his bruised cheek. "But you don't think I ought to let it stop me, I hope. That's why I built the dummy oven. So the patrollers wouldn't catch me and make things too hard for me."
Valona's eyes were wide with mingled fright and fascination.
The Baker said, "Why not? You know how many Squires there are on Florina? Ten thousand. You know how many patrollers? Maybe twenty thousand. And there are five hundred million of us natives. If we all lined up against them..." He snapped his fingers.
Terens said, "We'd be lining up against needle-guns and blaster-cannon, Baker."
The Baker retorted, "Yeah. We'd have to get some of our own. You Townmen have been living too close to the Squires. You're scared of them."
Valona's world was being turned upside down today. This man fought with patrollers and spoke with careless self-confidence to the Townman. When Rik plucked at her sleeve she disengaged his fingers gently and told him to sleep. She scarcely looked at him. She wanted to hear what this man said.
The broad man was saying, "Even with needle-guns and blast-cannon, the only way the Squires hold Florina is with the help of a hundred thousand Townmen."
Terens looked offended, but the Baker went on, "For instance, look at you. Very nice clothes. Neat. Pretty. You've got a nice little shack, I'll bet, with book-films, a private hopper and no curfew. You can even go to Upper City if you want to. The Squires wouldn't do that for you for nothing."
Terens felt in no position to lose his temper. He said, "All right. What do you want the Townmen to do? Pick fights with the patrollers? What good would it do? I admit I keep my town quiet and up to quota, but I keep them out of trouble. I try to help them, as much as the law will allow. Isn't that something? Someday-"
"Aah, someday. Who can wait for someday? When you and I are dead, what difference will it make who runs Florina? To us, I mean."
Terens said, "In the first place, I hate the Squires more than you do. Still-" He stopped, reddening.
The Baker laughed. "Go ahead. Say it again. I won't turn you in for hating the Squires. What did you do to get the patrollers after you?"
Terens was silent.
The Baker said, "I can make a guess. When the patrollers fell over me they were plenty sore. Sore in person, I mean, and not just because some Squire told them to be sore. I know them and I can tell. So I figure that there's only one thing that could have happened. You must've knocked down a patroller. Or killed him, maybe."
Terens was still silent.
The Baker lost none of his agreeable tone. "It's all right to keep quiet but there's such a thing as being too cautious, Town-man. You're going to need help. They know who you are."
"No, they don't," said Terens hastily.
"They must have looked at your cards in the Upper City."
"Who said I was in the Upper City?"
"A guess. I'll bet you were."
"They looked at my card, but not long enough to read my name."
"Long enough to know you're a Townman. All they have to do is find a Townman missing from his town or one who can't account for his movements today. The wires all over Florina are probably scorching right now. I think you're in trouble."
"You know there's no maybe. Want help?"
Terens shook his head. "No, thanks. I-I'll get out of this."
The Baker's ready laughter came. "It will be interesting to see how. Don't look down on me because I haven't got an education. I've got other things. Look, you spend the night thinking about it. Maybe you'll decide you can use help."
Valona's eyes were open in the darkness. Her bed was only a blanket thrown on the floor, but it was nearly as good as the beds she was used to. Elk slept deeply on another blanket in an opposite corner. He always slept deeply on days of excitement after his headaches passed.
The Townman had refused a bed and the Baker had laughed (he laughed at everything, it seemed), turned out the light and told him he was welcome to sit up in the darkness.
Valona's eyes remained open. Sleep was far away. Would she ever sleep again? She had knocked down a patroller!
Unaccountably, she was thinking of her father and mother.
They were very misty in her mind. She had almost made herself forget them in the years that had stretched between them and herself. But now she remembered the sound of whispered conversations during the night, when they thought her asleep. She remembered people who came in the dark.
The patrollers had awakened her one night and asked her questions she could not understand but tried to answer. She never saw her parents again after that. They had gone away, she was told, and the next day they had put her to work when other children her age still had two years of play time. People looked after her as she passed and other children weren't allowed to play with her, even when work time was over. She learned to keep to herself. She learned not to speak. So they called her "Big Lona" and laughed at her and said she was a half-wit.
Why did the conversation tonight remind her of her parents?
The voice was so close that its light breath stirred her hair and so low she scarcely heard it. She tensed, partly in fear, partly in embarrassment. There was only a sheet over her bare bosly.
It was the Townman. He said, "Don't say anything. Just listen. I am leaving. The door isn't locked. I'll be back, though. Do you hear me? Doyou understand?"
She reached in the darkness, caught his hand, pressed it with her fingers. He was satisfied.
"And watch Rik. Don't let him out of your sight. And Valona." There was a long pause. Then he went on, "Don't trust this Baker too much. I don't know about him. Do you understand?"
There was a faint noise of motion, an even fainter distant creak, and he was gone. She raised herself to one elbow and, except for Rik's breathing and her own, there was only silence.
She put her eyelids together in the darkness, squeezing them, trying to think. Why did the Townman, who knew everything, say this about the Baker, who hated patrollers and had saved them? Why?
She could think of only one thing. He had been there. Just when things looked as black as they could be, the Baker had come and had acted quickly. It was almost as though it had been arranged or as if the Baker had been waiting for it all to happen. She shook her head. It seemed strange. If it weren't for what the Townman had said, she would never think this.
The silence was broken into quivering pieces by a loud and unconcerned remark. "Hello? Still here?"
She froze as a beam of light caught her full. Slowly she relaxed and bunched the sheet about her neck. The beam fell away.
She did not have to wonder about the identity of the new speaker. His squat broad form bulked in the half-light that leaked backward from the flash.
The Baker said, "You know, I thought you'd go with him."
Valona said weakly, "Who, sir?"
"The Townman. You know he left, girl. Don't waste time pretending."
"He'll be back, sir."
"Did he say he would be back? If he did, he's wrong~ The patrollers will get him. He's not a very smart man, the Townman, or he'd know when a door is left open for a purpose. Are you planning to leave too?"
Valona said, "I'll wait for the Townman."
"Suit yourself. It will be a long wait. Go when you please." His light-beam suddenly left her altogether and traveled along the floor, picking out Rik's pale, thin face. Elk's eyelids crushed together automatically, at the impact of the light, but he slept on.
The Baker's voice grew thoughtful. "But I'd just as soon you left that one behind. You understand that, I suppose. If you decide to leave, the door is open, but it isn't open for him."
"He's just a poor, sick fellow-" Valona began in a high, frightened voice.
"Yes? Well, I collect poor sick fellows and that one stays here. Remember!"
The light-beam did not move from Elk's sleeping face.