|Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum|
THE THREE OF THEM left together the next morning, after eating what they now knew was a paste of ground grain.
"I'm going to make you a deal," Redd told them.
"Think you can outrun me? Either one of you?"
Kit shook her head, but March said, "I'd be willing to try. Want to find out?"
"In that suit?"
"You're a smoker, and I'm willing to try."
"You may get the chance. Look, I could just take off and look for Robin. When I found her—and I would—I'd take her to my hopper and we'd be back in New York before you knew we were gone. Capeesh?"
"That's got one big hole in it." Redd paused, looking thoughtful. "Are they going to let us go without a fight? Maybe they will. Maybe they won't."
"They won't," Kit said.
"I don't think so either," March told her, "but I'd like to hear your reason."
"Simple. We've seen through this place. They'll know we have, because nobody who hasn't would want to leave. If we get out we'll tell other people. So we don't get out."
Redd grinned. "Smart lady. How about you, March? You thinking the same as she is?"
"Close enough. What about you?"
"I'm not as sure as she is." Redd picked his teeth with a fingernail.
"But you think so, too. Why?"
"Everything's easier to get into than to get out of, that's all. You probably think I'm a goodfella."
March shook his head. "You were working as a sound man, so it didn't seem likely."
"That's right, I'm not. But I could've been a dozen times over. I'd be a made man by now. Or maybe dead, or in the slammer." Redd shrugged. "I know people, okay? Guys from my old neighborhood. Guys I went to school with. It was easy for most of them, and there was a couple who didn't even know where they were till somebody told them. You get in really easy, like here."
Kit said, "But you don't get out."
"Exactly. So I figure what I figure. They're sending people back to Earth, capeesh? She told us, and that's who had our shack before. For their health? I don't think so. They've got an angle."
"So do you," Kit told him.
"That's right. Mine is that we've got a better chance getting out together than doing it separately. I'll help you two, if you'll help Robin and me."
March said, "We will."
Kit looked from one to the other. "What if Robin doesn't want to go with him, Windy?"
"We'll deal with that after we've gotten out," March told her. "If we start fighting among ourselves now. " He shrugged.
Redd opened a battered vacpack of Old Camels, looked into it, and reclosed it. "I'll deal now. Kit, if you'll give your word you'll take her back to the city and turn her loose, I'll give mine that I'll let you do it. That's unless she decides to come back with me and tells you so herself."
"It's a deal." Kit offered her hand.
"I want to know about the footrace," March told him.
"Just this. I'm splitting. Two of us will have a better chance of finding her than one. If you don't like it, you'll have to run me down."
"I like it," March told him. "You won't have to run."
"That's great. We'll meet you at the gate, okay? The gate you came in through. We came in through that one, too."
Kit added, "I saw your lifeline, Windy."
"That was Gate Four," March told Redd. "We'll wait a while there—if we can. You do the same. That doesn't mean we'll wait for days. An hour or two, tops."
Redd nodded and left, walking fast. They saw him stop where the path threaded a picture-perfect little grove to light a cigarette; then he was lost to sight.
Before the path vanished into the grove they turned aside, flanking the grove and a small but lovely lake. At last Kit said, "Don't you care whether Robin gets out?"
"Yes," March told her, "but not very much. They're not going to kill her in here. They'll keep her—drugged or whatever it is—and happy. She may be better off here than she'd be with Jim."
"You said you knew she wasn't really a kid because she forgot to talk like one. But you knew more than that, because you told us she was really Robin. Did she say so?"
"No. She slipped badly once and called me Marchy. That's what she used to call me. "
"I've got it."
"Mostly she called me Mr. Wildspring. You want to do dramatic parts, Kit, and I know you'll do them well. Do you know what the difference between a bad actor and a good actor is?"
"Charisma. You know it as soon as he comes on."
"That's what makes a star, but there are a lot of good actors who aren't stars and never will be. They're good just the same, and when you need somebody to play the other cop or the wisecracking gal who runs the deli they'll do fine. The difference between a bad actor and a good one is that a bad one can look good for five minutes. Give him a good director and a good script and he can handle it. But a good actor can be good for as long as you need him ."
"What is it, Windy?"
He raised his shoulders and, hopelessly, let them fall. "I don't want to talk about it."
Her embrace surprised him, and their kiss lasted a long time. When they parted, Kit said, "Now tell me about it. What are friends for?"
"Sometimes I wish I didn't notice so much, that's all."
They continued in silence until Kit dropped onto a marble bench. "This is about me and Jim, isn't it?"
"Okay, out with it."
"You said he tore your clothes off. They aren't torn, and there's not a button missing."
"Clothes look better here, too."
March said nothing.
"They do! Most of these people are in rags. You saw that when we played the disk. But those rags look great to us."
He turned his digicorder toward her and backed away. "We'll stop at the first house we see and look at this. If there are tears—or missing buttons, any of that—I'll apologize. What will you do when there aren't?"
"Go ahead. I'm getting it."
"Windy, I love you. I do." Kit's tears overflowed as she spoke. "Do you really think I'd strip for Jim if I wasn't scared to death?"
"Yes. I'd like to be wrong about that. But yes, I do."
"Robin gave you a bad time." Kit fumbled for a handkerchief. "I uh-understand. I'd n-never really understood how b-bad it was till now,W-Windy. "
"Here." Turning off the digicorder, he brought her his.
She dried her eyes and blew her nose. "Don't say anything else, Windy. Okay? This is r-really pretty, even if it's n-not real. Let's just walk along and enjoy it for a while."
They did, strolling down into a miniature valley and up again toward a spruce fieldstone cottage. The low gravity made walking very pleasant, reminding March that in Heaven a man could run and run and never tire. He had read that somewhere, although he could not remember where. As they stepped across a tinkling rill bordered with white and blue wildflowers, he began to whistle softly.
A handsome man of fifty or so was planting shrubs in front of the cottage. Kit asked him whether the path would lead them to the gate, and March added, "Gate Four. We're supposed to meet our friends there."
"I'm Hap Harper." Hap smiled, wiping his hands on the legs of his spotless overalls. "I won't ask you to shake— I'd get you dirty. But that's who I am. Used to work in a bank in Saginaw."
March and Kit introduced themselves.
"Well, this little road you're on won't take you to Gate Four if you follow it straight. You need to follow it up to the next crossroad, then turn left. Follow that one, and you'll come to a footbridge over a lake. Pretty soon after that, it'll fork. Take the left fork, and you'll be there before long. Like to step inside for some tea?"
Kit said, "We're in kind of a hurry."
March nodded. "We'll have to go soon, but I'd enjoy that tea. If it's not too much trouble."
"No trouble at all!"
They were ushered into a spotless home, somewhat larger than they might have guessed from its outward appearance, through living room and dining room and into a cheerful kitchen where rows of polished copper pans reflected onions and sausages dangling from the rafters.
"Mr. Wildspring's an independent digivid producer," Hap told a smiling, white-haired woman. "He and Ms. Carlsen here are shooting a documentary on this place."
"I'd love to see it," the woman said. She wiped her hand with a dishtowel and offered it to Kit. "You call me Ida, Ms. Carlsen. Didn't you used to do Saturday Toy Shop?"
Kit smiled. "It's Kit, Ida. Yes, I did. Three live-long seasons playing with puppies and talking to puppets. I'd a lot rather have talked to the puppies."
March said, "I noticed a vid in your living room, Ida. I'm March, by the way. I know it's an unusual name, but I was born in March and I'm afraid my parents found March Wildspring amusing."
Ida smiled. "I could tell you something about Hap's name. Maybe I will, later. Were you wondering whether we still watch?"
"Yes, we do. Not much, but sometimes."
"I can't show you our documentary as it will be shown on the net," March told her. "It doesn't exist yet. But I have a disk here that will show some of the images I took. It would be a pleasure to show you a few."
Hap said, "I'd like to see them."
"There are a couple things I ought to say first," March told him. "I suppose it will take five minutes or so."
Ida smiled again. "That's good. It will give me time to make tea. Tea must steep, you know."
"You've heard it said that somebody sees the world through rose-colored glasses," March began. "That can be true in the literal sense, of course. Glasses with a pink tint make just about everyone look prettier and healthier. I won't talk about the tricks photographers and cameramen use, or the things that can be done to digital images on a computer. I won't except to remind you of them, as I just did."
Kit said, "Is this smart, Windy? I'm not trying to be smart myself. I don't know and I want to."
March shrugged. "Love can do something like that, too. Self-love does it better than almost anything. I've been walking down the street and seen a big angry-looking guy with a beat-up face, and thought he looks like trouble. Two more steps, and I realized I was seeing my reflection in a shop window. When I look into a mirror, knowing it's a mirror, I don't look like that. Not to me, I don't."
Ida said, "Love lets us see the good in a person, the wonderful goodness that we pass over every day."
"That's true, and I can give you an interesting instance of it. I love Kit here, and I think she's beautiful. Absolutely beautiful, and I've told her that over and over. When I got here, everybody looked very, very good. You'll have noticed that yourself."
Hap and Ida nodded.
"When I saw Kit, she looked absolutely beautiful—but so did a woman named Sue, and some other women I'd seen. So I wondered about that. I wondered about her clothes, too, because they hadn't changed either. Kit looks great in everything she wears, and she looked great in these—in certain piece of underwear I saw, in the clothes she's wearing now, in everything. They looked good, too. Very good, but no different. They're a little wrinkled now, but I doubt that you've noticed it."
Hap said, "I certainly haven't."
"Naturally I wondered about that. Kit told me once that every woman has a figure flaw. Maybe more than one, but there's always at least one. They have character flaws, too, though she didn't say that. Kit's too generous and too trusting, for example. I love her for it, but it's a flaw and I know it."
Ida looked at March over the tops of glasses that she no longer had. "Are you saying men don't?"
He shook his head. "Men are the same. We're worse, if anything. You won't have noticed, but I'm as ugly as sin. I've got a lot of character flaws, too. One is that I think too much. Things get into my head and bug me, and I can't stop. I thought about how Kit looked here a whole lot last night and finally I got it."
Kit said, "Let's hear it, Windy."
"It's pretty simple, really. Whatever it is they've got here that tweaks your brain to make things look better couldn't tweak mine where Kit was concerned. It couldn't because it had been tweaked already, by love."
Ida smiled. "Good for you."
"Thanks. That got me to thinking how Kit looked in the digivid I'd shot. She looked just great, but she was the only one who did."
Kit said, "I've been wondering about that, too, Windy. Why doesn't it work when we see vid?"
March rubbed his jaw. "I think I've got that one. The vid I'd shot looked terrific. The framing was great, the colors were all there and all vibrant, and the lighting couldn't have been better. I've shot lots of vid and think I can do it just about as well as most cameramen, but that was the best ever. See what I'm saying?"
"The vid itself looked good, but the things in there—except for me."
"Bingo." March switched off his digicorder and removed the disk. "That was the preliminary. It may have taken a little longer than five minutes. If so, I apologize. I'll play some of this now."
Swaying a bit because the digicorder had been carried on a man's shoulder, a barren hill of earth and stones appeared before the vid. A shed stood at the top, a crazy affair of leaning metal props and naked particle-board. Before it, a skeletal man in rags labored with a piece of rusted steel, digging holes for shrubs whose burlap wrappings had burst, shrubs that were clearly dying or dead. Kit's voice, and March's, spoke to this starved and tattered figure. He rose with a grin that revealed stained and rotting teeth, and wiped his filthy hands on his muddy thighs. "I'm Hap Harper."
"You ruined their paradise," Kit told March when the cottage was no longer in view.
"You saw how they really looked."
"Yeah. Yeah, I did."
"How long until they die, if they stay here and keep on living the way they've been doing it?"
"A year, maybe. The tea she was making for us. "
"Was stagnant water polluted with human wastes. Sewage."
"She didn't see it that way."
"Neither did we," March said, "but that's what it was."
"Wouldn't they die? There ought to be a lot of dead people around here. Does somebody pick them up?"
"How would I know?" He rubbed his jaw. "I've seen people sleeping on the ground."
"I've seen some of those, too," Kit said a few seconds later.
"I never tried to wake any of them up."
The girl at Gate Number Four was called Nita. She looked younger than "Penny" had, and March suspected that she was really younger still.
"We have to go out and get some things." Kit had found her locker and pulled out her transparent suit. "I imagine we'll be back pretty soon."
Nita looked doubtful. "Nobody said anything about people leaving."
Kit smiled. "Because there's nothing to say, really. We get our suits and go into your airlock. That's all. You can wave good-bye if you feel like it. That would be nice."
"I'll have to work it. There aren't any controls on the inside. No handles or anything like that. It's why somebody has to be on the gate to let them in."
Kit looked puzzled. "That's a funny airlock."
"Keeps out the undesirables," March muttered. He had returned to the arch by which they had entered, and was scanning the sun-drenched landscape. "I know it rains in here at night. Does it ever thunder?"
Nita shook her head. "I don't think so."
Kit looked at him quizzically.
"I thought I heard thunder, that's all." He shut the worn orange suit. "I'd suit up if I were you. Put on your helmet."
"It won't rain where we are," Nita told them.
"It's people." Kit had cocked her head to listen. "A crowd. People yelling."
"I'd suit up, if I were you."
"Sure." She moved a doll and sat down to pull the transparent suit over her legs. "They sound mad."
"Get your helmet on," March told her. "We'd better go."
"We told Jim we'd wait."
"To hell with Jim."
Two figures—one dark, the other scarlet against the bright green grass—topped the nearest of the low hills. They were running, bounding with long, rather ineffective strides. As March watched, the dark figure stopped to look back at the scarlet one. There was a distant shout—of what, he could not be sure.
He switched on his digicorder. Someone far away was beating a drum—a drum bigger than the biggest he had ever heard.
A dull, dead-sounding drum that could be beaten only by a giant.
"Get into the airlock quick." He spoke to Kit without looking at her.
"That's trouble, isn't it?"
"Get in there."
The scarlet figure had fallen, and the dark one was helping it—her—up. March's fingers fumbled with the carabiner that fastened his flashlight to his utility belt.
The drum beat louder as the mob crested the hill.
And the dark figure turned to face it. The flashes were invisible, as was the powder smoke. The sounds of the shots reached them only weakly, scattered among drumbeats: six, seven, eight. March found he was counting them, although he had never chosen to do so.
Eleven, twelve. Some semi-automatics held fifteen rounds. Some even more.
Beside him Kit said, "That's Jim, isn't it? My God! Look how scared Robin is."
"Get in the airlock!" March shouted.
Then he was running, although he had not consciously chosen to do that, either. The mob had halted, dismayed by its dead.
Robin had fallen and was scrambling to her feet as he reached her. Snatching her wrist, he jerked her up, threw her over his shoulder, and ran for all he was worth.
Her shriek might have stopped him. Kit's certainly did. He whirled—and beheld the impossible.
A giant the color of Ida's copper pots was cresting the hill. The men and women in the mob were as children in comparison, and small children at that. They tried to part before it and failed. Eight or ten died beneath its feet.
March fled and did not stop running until he and Robin had mounted to the false room that was the air lock. Outside, Kit shouted, "That girl! Nita! Windy, she's gone!"
"I'll get it!" Robin darted away. For a half second that was to prove much too long March stood motionless, gasping for breath. When he moved again, the room wall that was in fact the hatch of the airlock was slamming shut and Kit was dashing toward him. He saw it catch her above the knees, saw her fall, and watched her cut in two.
To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide