The Currents of Space (Page 6)

Terens said, "I’m afraid I don’t know."

"Can’t walk, y’know. Can’t walk a step. He’d have to be put there. Near’s I c’n make out, he might’s well be a baby. Everything else seems t’be gone."

"Is there a disease that has this effect?"

"Not’s I know of. Mind trouble might do it, but I don’t know nothing ‘tall about that. Mind trouble I’d send to the City. Y’ever see this one, Townman?"

Terens smiled and said gently, "I’ve just been here a month." Jencus sighed and reached for his handkerchief. "Yes. Old Townman, he was a fine man. Kept us well, he did. I been here ‘most sixty years, and never saw this fella before. Must be from ‘nother town."

Jencus was a plump man. He had the look of having been born plump, and if to this natural tendency is added the effect of a largely sedentary life, it is not surprising that he tended to punctuate even short speeches by a puff and a rather futile swipe at his gleaming forehead with his large red handkerchief.

He said, "Don’t ‘xactly know what t’say t’the patrollers."

The patrollers came all right. It was impossible to avoid that. The boys told their parents; their parents told one another. Town life was quiet enough. Even this would be unusual enough to be worth the telling in every possible combination of informer and informee. And in all the telling, the patrollers could not help but hear.

The patrollers, so called, were members of the Florinian Patrol. They were not natives of Florina and, on the other hand, they were not countrymen of the Squires from the planet Sark. They were simply mercenaries who could be counted on to keep order for the sake of the pay they got and never to be led into the misguidance of sympathy for Florinians through any ties of blood or birth.

There were two of them and one of the foremen from the mill came with them, in the fullness of his own midget authority.

The patrollers were bored and indifferent. A mindless idiot might be part of the day’s work but it was scarcely an exciting part. One said to the foreman, "Well, how long does it take you to make an identification? Who is this man?"

The foreman shook his head energetically. "I never saw him, Officer. He’s no one around here!"

The patroller turned to Jencus. "Any papers on him?"

"No, sir. He just had a rag ’bout him. Burned it t’prevent infection."

"What’s wrong with him?"

"No mind, near’s I c’n make out."

At this point Terens took the patrollers aside. Because they were bored they were amenable. The patroller who had been asking the questions put up his notebook and said, "All right, it isn’t even worth making a record of. It has nothing to do with us. Get rid of it somehow."

Then they left.

The foreman remained. He was a freckled man, red of hair, with a large and bristly mustache. He had been a foreman of rigid principles for five years and that meant his responsibility for the fulfillment of quota in his mill rested heavily upon him.

"Look here," he said fiercely. "What’s to be done about this? The damn folk are so busy talking, they ain’t working.~

"Send him t’City hospital, near’s I c’n make out," said Jencus, wielding his handkerchief industriously. "Noth’n’ I c’n do."

"To the City!" The foreman was aghast. "Who’s going to pay? Who’ll stand the fees? He ain’t none of us, is he?"

"Not’s far’s I know," admitted Jencus.

"Then why should we pay? Find out who he belongs to. Let his town pay."

"How we going t’find out? Tell me that."

The foreman considered. His tongue licked out and played with the coarse reddish foliage of his upper lip. He said, "Then we’ll just have to get rid of him. Like the patroller said."

Terens interrupted. "Look here. What do you mean by that?" The foreman said, "He might as well be dead. It would be a mercy."

Terens said, "You can’t kill a living person."

"Suppose you tell me what to do then."

"Can’t one of the townpeople take care of him?"

"Who’d want to? Would you?"

Terens ignored the openly insolent attitude. "I’ve got other work to do."

"So have all the folk. I can’t have anyone neglecting mill work to take care of this crazy thing."

Terens sighed, and said without rancor, "Now, Foreman, let’s be reasonable. If you don’t make quota this quarter I might suppose it’s because one of your workers is taking care of this poor fellow, and I’ll speak up for you to the Squires. Otherwise I’ll just say that I don’t know of any reason you couldn’t make quota, in case you don’t make it."

The foreman glowered. The Towinman had only been here a month, and already he was interfering with men who had lived in town all their lives. Still, he had a card marked with Squire’s – marks. It wouldn’t do to stand too openly against him too long. He said, "But who’d take him?" A horrible suspicion smote him. "I can’t. I got three kids of my own and my wife ain’t well." "I didn’t suggest that you should."

Terens looked out the window. Now that the patrollers had left, the squirming, whispering crowd had gathered closer about the Townman’s house. Most were youngsters, too young to be working, others were farm hands from the nearer farms. A few were millworkers, away from their shifts.

Terens saw the big girl at the very edge of the crowd. He had noticed her often in the past month. Strong, competent, and hard-working. Good natural intelligence hidden under that unhappy expression. If she were a man she might have been chosen for Townman’s training. But she was a woman; parents dead, and plain enough she was to preclude romantic side interests. A lone woman, in other words, and likely to remain so.