The Currents of Space (Page 13)

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.