The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xiii Part 13

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"Down, boy!" he said, and dealt the bear a sharp blow across the muzzle with his board.

The bear dealt Oliver a roundhouse clout in return that stretched him half-conscious beside Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above. Then, at precisely that moment of greatest dramatic impact, it shook its head dizzily and pa.s.sed out cold.

The girl scrambled up and knelt beside Oliver to listen to his heartbeat, found that he was alive and raised her voice in an urgent arpeggio that held in spite of its operatic timbre a distinct note of command.

In answer to her call the great beast in the corner--built something on the order of a hippopotamus but with unorthodox variations in that it boasted six legs to either side and was covered with close-curling, bright blue wool--trotted out of the shadows and scooped up the unconscious bear in its four powerful anterior arms.

A word from Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above sent it into the main menagerie quarters, where it stuffed the limp bear into its old cage and trotted back to its mistress with a look of adoring deference on its round face.



The girl gave the creature a random trill of commendation and, displaying surprising strength for one so slight, herself dragged the reviving Oliver back to the scene of his unfinished diagnosis. The order given her earlier by Mr. Furnay was not forgotten, however, for she did not linger.

"Not handsome, no," she murmured, locking the part.i.tion door behind her this time. "But O Personal Deity of Unmarried Maidens, such headlong bravery!"

Oliver roused ten minutes later to find himself alone with a memory of nightmare and a sleeping bear that offered no resistance whatever when he funneled a quant.i.ty of tetrachlorethylene down its throat.

He was still alone an hour later--and still trying dizzily to separate fact from fancy, having tried the part.i.tion door and found it locked--when the bear returned to semi-consciousness and submitted groggily to a follow-up dosage of purgative.

Oliver would have liked to stay long enough to learn the results of his diagnosis and to see Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above if she should reappear, but a glance at his watch electrified him with the realization that he had been away from his clinic for more than two hours and that his Aunt Katisha and Glenna might by now have the state police beating the palmetto flats for his body. Accordingly he left the Furnay estate in a great hurry, pausing at the gate only long enough to leave word for Mr. Furnay that he would ring later in the evening to check his patient's progress.

It was not until he had returned home and found his Aunt Katisha still out that his overworked nerves, punished outrageously by shock, violence and confusion, composed themselves enough to permit him a reasonable guess as to what actually had happened--and by that time his conclusions had taken a turn so fantastically improbable that he was lost again in a hopeless muddle of surmise.

He poured himself a gla.s.s of milk in the kitchen (he preferred coffee, but his Aunt Katisha frowned on the habit) and took his grisly suspicions down to the clinic, where he felt more at ease than in the antimaca.s.sared austerity of the house. There he mulled them over again, and time was able to weave into the pattern the disjointed impressions carried over from his period of semi-consciousness and dismissed until now as nightmare figments from the delirium of shock. Their alignment with other evidence increased his conviction: Mr. Furnay and Menage, Oliver concluded with a cold thrill of horror, were not human beings at all but monsters.

The pattern became even more disturbing when he considered various stories of local saucer-sightings and fireb.a.l.l.s, which linked themselves with chilling germanity to the events of the day.

First there had been Champ's instant distrust of Mr. Furnay and Bivins, and his attempt to rout them for the aliens they were. There had been Bivins' anomalous scream when bitten--a raucous sound certainly not human--and Mr. Furnay's grittily inconsonant order, spoken in no identifiable earthly tongue. The isolation of the Furnay estate took on a sinister and significant logic, as did its understaffed condition; there was the evident but baffling reluctance of Mr. Furnay and his myrmidons (with the notable exception of the golden-voiced Pearl) to approach even safely caged beasts, and the greater mystery of why a man so terrified of wild animals should have bought a menagerie in the first place.

Considering the part played by Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above in a scheme of things so fantastic left Oliver more disturbed than ever, but for a different reason. That she was unarguably as alien as the others made her equally mysterious, but connoted no share in whatever devious plot occupied the Furnay faction; a reexamination of Mr. Furnay's harshly dictatorial att.i.tude toward her, coupled with Oliver's own uncertain memory of the moment when the girl had come to his rescue, convinced him that she was not ipso facto a member of the extraterrestrial cabal but was its prisoner instead.

Visualizing the probable fate of a beautiful girl held captive by aliens--and forced by them to train outlandish, half-remembered brutes like the one behind the part.i.tion--rather strained Oliver's talent for surmise, but at the same time moved him to the uneasy conviction that it was his duty to rescue her in turn.

The thought that he might already be too late appalled him. The slender blonde beauty of Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above was distractingly fresh in his mind, the eager arpeggiation of her voice an indelible memory. Recalling the smile she had given him in parting stirred an internal warmth unguessed at before, an emotional ignition certainly never kindled by his fiancee or family.

Orella Simms, Glenna, his Aunt Katisha!

Thought of his obligations brought him back to reality with a jar; the appalling gulf between fact and fancy made clear to him with sudden and shocking clarity the nonent.i.ty's role that had been played, and must be played, all his life by Oliver Watts.

He was the perennial romantic introvert, dreaming impossible dreams compounded of escape reading and frustration, grasping timorously at any thread of adventure that might lead him to forget for the moment the drab monotone of his existence. His mouth twisted wryly. There was, of course, no fantastic alien plot incubating on the Furnay estate, no sunsuited damsel in distress awaiting rescue at his inept hands. He'd imagined the romantic aspects of the episode--the "unearthly" tongue, the improbable beast. No one required, or ever would require, anything of Oliver Watts except his Aunt Katisha and Glenna, who demanded obedience, and Orella Simms, who expected conformity.

As if on cue, the Watts family car swung off the highway and rolled down the crushed sh.e.l.l driveway past the clinic. Oliver's Aunt Katisha got out, leaving Glenna and Orella Simms to wait, and strode into the clinic office.

"I see you've managed to spoil another one," she said acidly, pausing long enough to retrieve the handkerchief Mr. Furnay's chauffeur had lost earlier. "Moreover, I called twice this afternoon and found you gone. Where?"

Oliver, as usual, weathered the storm in silence. Somewhere near the end he managed to squeeze in the information that he had treated a sick animal at the Furnay place--a saddle horse, he said, lying automatically as the lesser of two evils.

His aunt Katisha, her inquisitorial duty discharged, dropped the discolored handkerchief pointedly on Oliver's desk and rejoined Glenna and Orella Simms. The car drove away. Oliver, left alone in the growing dusk of evening to his miserable introspection, found his wandering attention returning unaccountably to the crumpled handkerchief, and drew it closer for a better look.

It was only a harmless square of linen, smudged with dust and spotted with blood from Bivins' chow-bitten leg--but with his closer look Oliver's world sprang up and exploded with a shattering bang in his startled face.

The dust was quite ordinary, but Bivins' blood was not.

It was green.

He was never quite sure, later, just what happened next. He retained a vague memory of roaring away in his Aunt Katisha's car through a reckless showering of crushed sh.e.l.l; sometimes he could recall the cool onrush of wind whipping his face and the frantic dodging of approaching headlamps on the highway. But in the main, his descent upon the Furnay estate was a blank.

Only one fact stood out with freezing clarity, excluding any thought of his Aunt Katisha's certain wrath or of Orella's maidenly reproaches: Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above was in Deadly Danger, and there was none but Oliver Watts to rescue her.

There was a brief instant of lucidity as he approached the Furnay gates through the cabbage palms and was forced to choose a course of action.

The attendant certainly would not admit him without orders from Mr. Furnay, who as certainly would not give them; the walls were much too high and sheer for climbing; and to make the need for haste even more critical, it was only too obvious that the Furnay gang was about to depart.

A tremendous saucer-shaped s.h.i.+p had landed by the menagerie building, where it sat with circular peripheral ports aglow and lines of bold enigmatic hieroglyphs fluorescing greenly on its smooth undersurface. Jointed metal figures scurried here and there, chivvying the last of Mr. Furnay's herbivores up a ramp into the belly of the s.h.i.+p; the predators, in cages drawn by other sleek robot stevedores, followed in orderly procession.

Oliver solved his problem of entry by driving headlong through the iron grillwork.

There was a raucous yelling from the gateman, a monstrous rending of metal and jangling of broken gla.s.s. Aunt Katisha's car slewed erratically down the Furnay drive, turned over twice and pitched Oliver out, stunned for the second time that day, into the greenish glow shed by the saucer-s.h.i.+p's lights.

He struggled back to awareness to find his head pillowed on something soft and wonderfully comfortable. A circle of startled faces, most of them dark facsimiles of the putteed Bivins', stared uncertainly down at him. In the near foreground stood Mr. Furnay, wringing his hands and muttering grittily to himself in his own dissonant tongue. Mr. Furnay, seen now for the first time without his too-large Panama, exhibited instead of hair a crest of downy blue feathers and p.r.o.nged antennae that vibrated softly in the evening breeze.

"Where is she?" Oliver demanded. He scrambled dizzily to his feet, and the circle of faces melted backward hastily. "What have you done with Pearl, you monsters?"

Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above, on whose lap Oliver's head had been pillowed, stood up to move between Oliver and the patently apprehensive Mr. Furnay. She wore a light maroon cape over her sunsuit against the mild chill of evening, and could not possibly have looked less like a damsel in distress. She seemed, as a matter of fact, quite happy.

"I hoped you would come to see me again before blastoff," she said. Her voice skipped, tinkling with pleasure, from octave to octave. "But so suddenly--so das.h.i.+ng, so impetuous!"

"You're going away willingly?" Oliver said dumbly. "Then they're not forcing--you're not a prisoner after all?"

Her laugh was an arpeggiando blending of surprise and amus.e.m.e.nt. "A prisoner of these Tsammai? No. I am a performer in their company, hired by Xtll--Mr. Furnay--to train and exhibit animals native to my own world."

"But I heard Furnay threaten you in the menagerie building this afternoon! His tone--"

"The Tsammai tongue sounds dreadful because it is all consonants and not based on pitch and nuance as mine is," she said. "But the Tsammai themselves are only tradesmen, and are very gentle. Xtll--Mr. Furnay--only feared that I might say too much to you then, when it was important that the natives should not suspect our ident.i.ty."

"It is true," Mr. Furnay nodded, sounding relieved. "We must avoid notice on such worlds as yours, which are too backward to appreciate the marvels of our show. We stop here only to scout for new and novel exhibits."

"Show!" Oliver echoed, "You mean all this is--is--"

"What else?" asked Mr. Furnay. He pointed with his antennae to the fluorescent hieroglyphs on the undersurface of the saucer-s.h.i.+p. "See, in our lingua galactica it reads: SKRRFF BROTHERS' INTERSTELLAR CIRCUS, THE GALAXY'S GREATEST. It is the best on the circuit."

He indicated the circle of identical Bivinses. "These are the Skrrff brothers, our owners. I, sir, am business manager."

"But not always a good one," one of the brothers said pointedly. "This time he has bought an entire menagerie of such fierceness that our trainers cannot exhibit it. It will have to be sold to some frontier-planet zoo, and our loss will be staggering."

It was left for Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above to deal with the problem, which she did with universal feminine practicality.

"Oliver made your bear well," she pointed out. "And he is afraid of nothing--nothing! Could he not train his own fierce beasts as well as I train my gentle ones?"

Oliver said, "Huh?"

The Skrrff brothers, of course, implored Oliver on the spot to join them at any salary.

Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above said demurely, in three octaves and for all the world to hear: "And I'm lonely, Oliver!"

Oliver never had a chance.

Life in Landsdale goes quietly on, the ripples made by Oliver's departure long since smoothed away by the years.

Miss Orella Simms has married the Methodist minister who was to have married her to Oliver. Aunt Katisha and Glenna have resigned themselves to Oliver's escape and have taken over the job of a.s.sisting Orella to superintend her husband's career, an occupation eminently satisfactory to all because the placid cleric never dreams troublesome dreams of adventure, as Oliver did, to try their matriarchal patience.

... But life is never dull for Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Watts, whose breathtaking performances currently electrify the thrill-hungry cultures of a thousand worlds. They have traveled from Sirius to Sagittarius, and at this writing have two children: a golden-haired daughter of four named Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-sharp-above, and a tow-headed boy of two who has a cowlick like his father's and whose name is Butch.

They are very happy and there has been no talk between them, though they are wealthy enough in galactic credits by now to have bought half a planet for a home, of settling down to the quiet life. They are quite satisfied to leave such consequential decisions to those who like change for the sake of change or who, unlike Oliver, never know when they are well off.

One clean break to a lifetime, Oliver maintains, is enough.

THE VARIABLE MAN.

By Philip K. d.i.c.k .

He fixed things--clocks, refrigerators, vidsenders and destinies. But he had no business in the future, where the calculators could not handle him. He was Earth's only hope--and its sure failure!

Security Commissioner Reinhart rapidly climbed the front steps and entered the Council building. Council guards stepped quickly aside and he entered the familiar place of great whirring machines. His thin face rapt, eyes alight with emotion, Reinhart gazed intently up at the central SRB computer, studying its reading.

"Straight gain for the last quarter," observed Kaplan, the lab organizer. He grinned proudly, as if personally responsible. "Not bad, Commissioner."

"We're catching up to them," Reinhart retorted. "But too d.a.m.n slowly. We must finally go over--and soon."

Kaplan was in a talkative mood. "We design new offensive weapons, they counter with improved defenses. And nothing is actually made! Continual improvement, but neither we nor Centaurus can stop designing long enough to stabilize for production."

"It will end," Reinhart stated coldly, "as soon as Terra turns out a weapon for which Centaurus can build no defense."

"Every weapon has a defense. Design and discord. Immediate obsolescence. Nothing lasts long enough to--"

"What we count on is the lag," Reinhart broke in, annoyed. His hard gray eyes bored into the lab organizer and Kaplan slunk back. "The time lag between our offensive design and their counter development. The lag varies." He waved impatiently toward the ma.s.sed banks of SRB machines. "As you well know."

At this moment, 9:30 AM, May 7, 2136, the statistical ratio on the SRB machines stood at 21-17 on the Centauran side of the ledger. All facts considered, the odds favored a successful repulsion by Proxima Centaurus of a Terran military attack. The ratio was based on the total information known to the SRB machines, on a gestalt of the vast flow of data that poured in endlessly from all sectors of the Sol and Centaurus systems.

21-17 on the Centauran side. But a month ago it had been 24-18 in the enemy's favor. Things were improving, slowly but steadily. Centaurus, older and less virile than Terra, was unable to match Terra's rate of technocratic advance. Terra was pulling ahead.

"If we went to war now," Reinhart said thoughtfully, "we would lose. We're not far enough along to risk an overt attack." A harsh, ruthless glow twisted across his handsome features, distorting them into a stern mask. "But the odds are moving in our favor. Our offensive designs are gradually gaining on their defenses."

"Let's hope the war comes soon," Kaplan agreed. "We're all on edge. This d.a.m.n waiting...."

The war would come soon. Reinhart knew it intuitively. The air was full of tension, the elan. He left the SRB rooms and hurried down the corridor to his own elaborately guarded office in the Security wing. It wouldn't be long. He could practically feel the hot breath of destiny on his neck--for him a pleasant feeling. His thin lips set in a humorless smile, showing an even line of white teeth against his tanned skin. It made him feel good, all right. He'd been working at it a long time.

First contact, a hundred years earlier, had ignited instant conflict between Proxima Centauran outposts and exploring Terran raiders. Flash fights, sudden eruptions of fire and energy beams.

And then the long, dreary years of inaction between enemies where contact required years of travel, even at nearly the speed of light. The two systems were evenly matched. Screen against screen. Wars.h.i.+p against power station. The Centauran Empire surrounded Terra, an iron ring that couldn't be broken, rusty and corroded as it was. Radical new weapons had to be conceived, if Terra was to break out.

Through the windows of his office, Reinhart could see endless buildings and streets, Terrans hurrying back and forth. Bright specks that were commute s.h.i.+ps, little eggs that carried businessmen and white-collar workers around. The huge transport tubes that shot ma.s.ses of workmen to factories and labor camps from their housing units. All these people, waiting to break out. Waiting for the day.

Reinhart snapped on his vidscreen, the confidential channel. "Give me Military Designs," he ordered sharply.

He sat tense, his wiry body taut, as the vidscreen warmed into life. Abruptly he was facing the hulking image of Peter Sherikov, director of the vast network of labs under the Ural Mountains.

Sherikov's great bearded features hardened as he recognized Reinhart. His bushy black eyebrows pulled up in a sullen line. "What do you want? You know I'm busy. We have too much work to do, as it is. Without being bothered by--politicians."

"I'm dropping over your way," Reinhart answered lazily. He adjusted the cuff of his immaculate gray cloak. "I want a full description of your work and whatever progress you've made."

"You'll find a regular departmental report plate filed in the usual way, around your office someplace. If you'll refer to that you'll know exactly what we--"

"I'm not interested in that. I want to see what you're doing. And I expect you to be prepared to describe your work fully. I'll be there shortly. Half an hour."

Reinhart cut the circuit. Sherikov's heavy features dwindled and faded. Reinhart relaxed, letting his breath out. Too bad he had to work with Sherikov. He had never liked the man. The big Polish scientist was an individualist, refusing to integrate himself with society. Independent, atomistic in outlook. He held concepts of the individual as an end, diametrically contrary to the accepted organic state Weltansicht.

But Sherikov was the leading research scientist, in charge of the Military Designs Department. And on Designs the whole future of Terra depended. Victory over Centaurus--or more waiting, bottled up in the Sol System, surrounded by a rotting, hostile Empire, now sinking into ruin and decay, yet still strong.

Reinhart got quickly to his feet and left the office. He hurried down the hall and out of the Council building.

A few minutes later he was heading across the mid-morning sky in his highspeed cruiser, toward the Asiatic land-ma.s.s, the vast Ural mountain range. Toward the Military Designs labs.

Sherikov met him at the entrance. "Look here, Reinhart. Don't think you're going to order me around. I'm not going to--"

"Take it easy." Reinhart fell into step beside the bigger man. They pa.s.sed through the check and into the auxiliary labs. "No immediate coercion will be exerted over you or your staff. You're free to continue your work as you see fit--for the present. Let's get this straight. My concern is to integrate your work with our total social needs. As long as your work is sufficiently productive--"

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xiii Part 13

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