The Currents of Space (Page 8)
RIK saw the Baker killed. He saw him crumple without a sound, his chest driven in and charred into smoking ruins under the silent push of the blaster. It was a sight that drowned out for him most of what had preceded and almost all that had followed.
There was the dim memory of the patroller's first approach, of the quiet but terribly intent manner in which he had drawn his weapon. The Baker had looked up and shaped his lips for one last word that he had no time to utter. Then the deed was done, there was the rushing of blood in Rik's ears and the wild screaming scramble of the mob swirling in all directions, like a river in flood.
For a moment it negated the improvement Rik's mind had made in those last few hours of sleep. The patroller had plunged toward him, throwing himself forward upon yelling men and women as though they were a viscous sea of mud he would have to slog through. Rik and Lona turned with the current and were carried away. There were eddies and subcurrents, turning and quivering as the flying patrollers' cars began to hover overhead. Valona urged Rik forward, ever outward to the outskirts of the City. For a while he was the frightened child of yesterday, not the almost adult of that morning.
He had awakened that morning in the grayness of a dawn he could not see in the windowless room he slept in. For long minutes he lay there, inspecting his mind. Something had healed during the night; something had knit together and become whole. It had been getting ready to happen ever since the moment, two days before, when he had begun to "remember." The process had been proceeding all through yesterday. The trip to the Upper City and the library, the attack upon the patroller and the ffight that followed, the encounter with Baker-it had all acted upon him like a ferment. The shriveled fibers of his mind, so long dormant, had been seized and stretched, forced into an aching activity, and now, after a sleep, there was a feeble pulsing about them.
He thought of space and the stars, of long, long, lonely stretches, and great silences.
Finally he turned his head to one side and said, "Lona."
She snapped awake, lifting herself to an elbow, peering in his direction.
"Here I am, Lona."
"Are you all right?"
"Sure." He couldn't hold down his excitement. "I feel fine, Lona. Listen! I remember more. I was in a ship and I know exactly-"
But she wasn't listening to him. She slipped into her dress and with her back to him smoothed the seam shut down the front and then fumbled nervously with her belt.
She tiptoed toward him. "I didn't mean to sleep, Rik. I tried to stay awake."
Rilc felt the infection of her nervousness. He said, "Is something wrong?"
"Sh, don't speak so loudly. It's all right."
"Where's the Townman?"
"He's not here. He-he had to leave. Why don't you go back to sleep, Bik?"
He pushed her consoling arm aside. "I'm all right. I don't want to sleep. I wanted to tell the Townman about my ship."
But the Towr~man wasn't there and Valona would not listen. Rik subsided and for the first time felt actively annoyed with Valona. She treated him as though he were a child and he was beginning to feel like a man.
A light entered the room and the broad figure of the Baker entered with it. uk blinked at him and was, for a moment, daunted. He did not entirely object when Valona's comforting arm stole about his shoulder.
The Baker's thick lips stretched in a smile. "You're early awake."
The Baker said, "It's just as well. You'll be moving today."
Valona's mouth, was dry. She said, "You'll not be giving us to the patrollers?"
She remembered the way he had looked at Rik after the Townman had left. He was still looking at Rik; only at Rik.
"Not to the patrollers," he said. "The proper people have been informed and you'll be safe enough."
He left, and when he returned shortly thereafter he brought food, clothes and two basins of water. The clothes were new and looked completely strange.
He watched them as they ate, saying, "I'm going to give you new names and new histories. You're to listen, and I don't want you to forget. You're not Florinians, do you understand? You're brother and sister from the planet Wotex. You've been visiting Florina-"
He went on, supplying details, asking questions, listening to their answers.
Rik was pleased to be able to demonstrate the workings of his memory, his easy ability to learn, but Valona's eyes were dark with worry.
The Baker was not blind to that. He said to the girl, "If you give me the least trouble I'll send him on alone and leave you behind."
Valona's strong hands clenched spasmodically. "I will give you no trouble."
It was well into the morning when the Baker rose to his feet and said, "Let's go!"
His last action was to place little black sheets of limp leatherette in their breast pockets.
Once outside, Rik looked with astonishment at what he could see of himself. He did not know clothing could be so complicated. The Baker had helped him get it on, but who would help him take it off? Valona didn't look like a farm girl at all. Even her legs were covered with thin material, and her shoes were raised at the heels so that she had to balance carefully when she walked.
Passers-by gathered, staring and gawking, calling to one another. Mostly they were children, marketing women, and skulking, ragged idlers. The Baker seemed oblivious to them. He carried a thick stick which found itself occasionally, as though by accident, between the legs of any who pressed too closely.
And then, when they were still only a hundred yards from the bakery and had made but one turning, the outer reaches of the surrounding crowd swirled excitedly and Rik made out the black and silver of a patroller.
That was when it happened. The weapon, the blast, and again a wild flight. Was there ever a time when fear had not been with him, when the shadow of the patroller had not been behind him?
They found themselves in the squalor of one of the outlying districts of the City. Valona was panting harshly; her new dress bore the wet stains of perspiration.
Rik gasped, "I can't run any more."
"We've got to."
"Not like this. Listen." He pulled back firmly against the pressure of the girl's grip. "Listen to me."
The fright and panic were leaving him.
He said, "Why don't we go on and do what the Baker wanted us to do?"
She said, "How do you know what he wanted us to do?" She was anxious. She wanted to keep moving.
He said, "We were to pretend we were from another world and he gave us these." Rik was excited. He pulled the little rectangle out of his pocket, staring at both sides and trying to open it as though it were a booklet.
He couldn't. It was a single sheet. He felt about the edges and as his fingers closed at one corner he heard, or rather felt, something give, and the side toward him turned a startling milky white. The close wording on the new surface was difficult to understand though he began carefully making out the syllables.
Finally he said, "It's a passport."
"Something to get us away." He was sure of it. It had popped into his head. A single word, "passport," like that. "Don't you see? He was going to have us leave Florina. On a ship. Let's go through with that."
She said, "No. They stopped him. They killed him. We couldn't, Rik, we couldn't."
He was urgent about it. He was nearly babbling. "But it would be the best thing to do. They wouldn't be expecting us to do that. And we wouldn't go on the ship he wanted us to go on. They'd be watching that. We'd go on another ship. Any other ship."
A ship. Any ship. The words rang in his ears. Whether his idea was a good one or not, he didn't care. He wanted to be on a ship. He wanted to be in space.
She said, "All right. If you really think so. I know where the spaceport is. When I was a little girl we used to go there on idle-days sometimes and watch from far away to see the ships shoot upward."
They were on their way again, and only a slight uneasiness scratched vainly at the gateway of Rik's consciousness. Some memory not of the far past but of the very near past; something he should remember and could not; could just barely not. Something.
He drowned it in the thought of the ship that waited for them. The Florinian at the entry gate was having his fill of excitement that day, but it was excitement at long distance. There had been the wild stories of the previous evening, telling of patrollers attacked and of daring escapes. By this morning the stories had expanded and there were whispers of patrollers killed.
He dared not leave his post, but he craned his neck and watched the air-cars pass, and the grim-faced patrollers leave, as the spaceport contingent was cut and cut till it was almost nothing.
They were filling the City with patrollers, he thought, and was at once frightened and drunkenly uplifted. Why should it make him happy to think of patrollers being killed? They never bothered him. At least not much. He had a good job. It wasn't as though he were a stupid peasant.
But he was happy.
He scarcely had time for the couple before him, uncom fortable and perspiring in the outlandish clothing that marked them at once as foreigners. The woman was holding a passport through the slot.
A glance at her, a glance at the passport, a glance at the list of reservations. He pressed the appropriate button and two translucent ribbons of film sprang out at them.
"Go on," he said impatiently. "Get them on your wrists and move on."
"Which ship is ours?" asked the woman in a polite whisper.
That pleased him. Foreigners were infrequent at the Florinian spaceport. In recent years they had grown more and more infrequent. But when they did come they were neither patrollers nor Squires. They didn't seem to realize you were only a Florinian yourself and they spoke to you politely.
It made him feel two inches taller. He said, "You'll find it in• Berth '7, madam. I wish you a pleasant trip to Wotex." He said it in the grand manner.
He then returned to his task of putting in surreptitious calls to friends in the City for more information and of trying, even more unobtrusively, to tap private power-beam conversations in Upper City.
It was hours before he found out that he had made a horrible mistake.
Rik said, "Lona!"
He tugged at her elbow, pointed quickly and whispered, "That one!"
Valona looked at the indicated ship doubtfully. It was much smaller than the ship in Berth '7, for which their tickets held good. It looked more burnished. Four air locks yawned open and the main port gaped, with a ramp leading from it like an outstretched tongue reaching to ground level.
Rik said, "They're airing it. They usually air passenger ships before flight to get rid of the accumulated odor of canned oxygen, used and reused."
Valona stared at him. "How do you know?"
Rik felt a sprig of vanity grow within himself. "I just know. You see, there wouldn't be anyone in it now. It isn't comfortable, with the draft on."
He looked about uneasily. "I don't know why there aren't more people about, though. Was it like this when you used to watch it?"
Valona thought not, but she could scarcely remember. Childhood memories were far away.
There was not a patroller in sight as they walked up the ramp on quivering legs. What figures they could see were civilian employees, intent on their own jobs, and small in the distance.
Moving air cut through them as they stepped into the hold and Valona's dress bellied so that she had to bring her hands down to keep the hemline within bounds.
"Is it always like this?" she asked. She had never been on a spaceship before; never dreamed of being on one. Her lips stuck together and her heart pounded.
Rik said, "No. Just during aeration."
He walked joyfully over the hard metallite passageways, inspecting the empty rooms eagerly.
"Here," he said. It was the galley.
He spoke rapidly. "It isn't food so much. We can get along without food for quite a while. It's water."
He rummaged through the neat and compact nestings of utensils and came up with a large, capped container. He looked about for the water tap, muttered a breathless hope that they had not neglected to fill the water tanks, then grinned his relief when the soft sound of pumps came, and the steady gush of liquid.
"Now just take some of the cans. Not too many. We don't want them to take notice." uk tried desperately to think of ways of countering discovery. Again he groped for something he could not quite remember. Occasionally he still ran into those gaps in his thought and, cowardlike, he avoided them, denied their existence.
He found a small room devoted to fire-fighting equipment, emergency medical and surgical supplies, and welding equipment.
He said with a certain lack of confidence, "They won't be in here, except in emergencies. Are you afraid, Lona?"
"I won't be afraid with you, Rik," she said humbly. Two days before, no, twelve hours before, it had been the other way around. But on board ship, by some transmutation of personality she did not question, it was Rik who was the adult, she who was the child.
He said, "We won't be able to use lights because they would notice the power drain, and to use the toilets, we'll have to wait for rest periods and try to get out past any of the night crew."
The draft cut off suddenly. Its cold touch on their faces was no longer there and the soft, steady humming sound, that had distantly accompanied it, stopped and left a large silence to fill its place.
Rik said, "They'll be boarding soon, and then we'll be out in space."
Valona had never seen such joy in Bik's face. He was a lover going to meet his love.
If Rik had felt a man on awaking that dawn, he was a giant now, his arms stretching the length of the Galaxy. The stars were his marbles, and the nebulae were cobwebs to brush away.
He was on a ship! Memories rushed back continuously in a long flood and others left to make room. He was forgetting the kyrt fields and the mill and Valona crooning to him in the dark. They were only momentary breaks in a pattern that was now returning with its raveled ends slowly knitting.
It was the ship!
If they had put him on a ship long ago, he wouldn't have had to wait so long for his burnt-out brain cells to heal themselves.
He spoke softly to Valona in the darkness. "Now don't worry. You'll feel a vibration and hear a noise but that will be just the motors. There'll be a heavy weight on you. That's acceleration."
There was no common Floririian word for the concept and he used another word for it, one that came easily to mind. Valona did not understand.
She said, "Will it hurt?"
He said, "It will be very uncomfortable, because we don't have anti-acceleration gear to take up the pressure, but it won't last. Just stand against this wall, and when you feel yourself being pushed against it, relax. See, it's beginning."
He had picked the right wall, and as the thrumming of the
thrusting hyperatomics swelled, the apparent gravity shifted, and what had been a vertical wall seemed to grow more and more diagonal.
Valona whimpered once, then lapsed into a hard-breathing silence. Their throats rasped as their chest walls, unprotected by straps and hydraulic absorbers, labored to free their lungs sufficiently for just a little air intake. uk managed to pant out words, any words that might let Valona know he was there and ease the terrible fear of the unknown that he knew must be filling her. It was only a ship, oniy a wonderful ship; but she had never been on a ship before.
He said, "There's the jump, of course, when we go through hyperspace and cut across most of the distance between the stars all at once. That won't bother you at all. You won't even know it happened. It's nothing compared to this. Just a little twitch in your insides and it's over." He got the words out syllable by grunted syllable. It took a long time.
Slowly, the weight on their chests lifted and the invisible chain holding them to the wall stretched and dropped off. They fell, panting, to the floor.
Finally Valona said, "Are you hurt, Rik?"
"I, hurt?" He managed a laugh. He had not caught his breath yet, but he laughed at the thought that he could be hurt on a ship.
He said, "I lived on a ship for years once. I didn't land on a planet for months at a time."
"Why?" she asked. She had crawled closer and put a hand to his cheek, making sure he was there.
He put his arm about her shoulder, and she rested within it quietly, accepting the reversal.
"Why?" she asked.
111k could not remember why. He had done it; he had hated to land on a planet. For some reason it had been necessary to stay in space, but he could not remember why. Again he dodged the gap.
He said, "I had a job."
"Yes," she said. "You analyzed Nothing."
"That's right." He was pleased. "That's exactly what I did. Do you know what that means?"
He didn't expect her to understand, but he had to talk. He had to revel in memory, to delight drunkenly in the fact that he could call up past facts at the ffick of a mental finger.
He said, "You see, all the material in the universe is made up of a hundred different kinds of substances. We call those substances elements. Iron and copper are elements."
"I thought they were metals."
"So they are, and elements too. Also oxygen, and nitrogen, carbon and palladium. Most important of all, hydrogen and helium. They're the simplest and most common."
"I never heard of those," Valona said wistfully.
"Ninety-five per cent of the universe is hydrogen and most of the rest is helium. Even space."
"I was once told," said Valona, "that space was a vacuum. They said that meant there was nothing there. Was that wrong?"
"Not quite. There's almost nothing there. But you see, I was a Spatio-analyst, which meant that I went about through space collecting the extremely small amounts of elements there and analyzing them. That is, I decided how much was hydrogen, how much helium and how much other elements."
"Well, that's complicated. You see, the arrangement of elements isn't the same everywhere in space. In some regions there is a little more helium than normal; in other places, more sodium than normal; and so on. These regions of special analytic makeup wind through space like currents. That's what they call them. They're the currents of space. It's important to know how these currents are arranged because that might explain how the universe was created and how it developed."
"How would it explain that?"
Rik hesitated. "Nobody knows exactly."
He hurried on, embarrassed that this immense store of knowledge in which his mind was thankfully wallowing could come so easily to an end marked "unknown" under the questioning of
•.. of •.. It suddenly occurred to him that Valona, after all, was nothing but a Florinian peasant girl.
He said, "Then, again, we find out the density, you know, the thickness, of this space gas in all regions of the Galaxy. It's different in different places and we have to know exactly what it is in order to allow ships to calculate exactly how to jump through hyperspace. It's like..." His voice died away.
Valona stiffened and waited uneasily for him to continue, but only silence followed. Her voice sounded hoarsely in the complete darkness.
"Rik? What's wrong, Rik?"
Still silence. Her hands groped to his shoulders, shaking him. "Rik! uk!"
And it was the voice of the old Rik, somehow, that answered. It was weak, frightened, its joy and confidence vanished.
"Lona. We did something wrong."
"What's the matter? We did what wrong?"
The memory of the scene in which the patroller had shot down the Baker was in his mind, etched hard and clear, as though called back by his exact memory of so many other things.
He said, "We shouldn't have run away. We shouldn't be here on this ship."
He was shivering uncontrollably, and Valona tried futilely to wipe the moisture from his forehead with her hand.
"Why?" she dem~nded. "Why?"
"Because we should have known that if the Bak~~ were willing to take us out in daylight he expected no trouble from patrollers. Do you remember the patroller? The one who shot the Baker?"
"Do you remember his face?"
"I didn't dare look."
"I did, and there was something queer, but I didn't think. I didn't think. Lona, that wasn't a patroller. It was the Townman, Lona. It was the Townman dressed like a patroller."