The Currents of Space (Page 23)

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."

"What’s that?"

"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.

"Please, Lona!"

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!"