The Currents of Space (Page 12)

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.

Terens was hesitating, and Rik and Valona could do nothing without him. The Townman’s inner uncertainty had mounted to a fever. If they ran, where could they go? If they remained where they were, what would they do? There was a chance that the patrollers were after others altogether, but with a patroller unconscious on the library floor through their act, the chances of that were negligible.

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.