The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 82
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"... beautiful, isn't he? That's the biggest one I've seen!"
"Come over here, won't you?" the horned one called, in a soft, gentle voice which contrasted oddly with the raucous bellowing Rolf had been accustomed to hearing in s.p.a.ce. "We'd like to talk to you."
Just then Kanaday emerged from the door of the shack and limped down to the staircase.
"Hey, Rolf!" he called. "Leave those things alone!"
"Let me find out what they want first, huh?"
"Can't be any good, whatever it is," Kanaday growled. "Tell them to get out of here before I throw them back to wherever they came from. And make it fast."
The two Earthers looked at each other uneasily. Rolf walked toward them.
"He doesn't like Earthers, that's all," Rolf explained. "But he won't do anything but yell."
Kanaday spat in disgust, turned, and limped back inside the shack.
"I didn't know you were wearing horns," Rolf said.
The Earther flushed. "New style," he said. "Very expensive."
"Oh," Rolf said. "I'm new here; I just got back. Five years in s.p.a.ce. When I left you people looked all alike. Now you wear horns."
"It's the new trend," said the earless one. "We're Individs. When you left the Conforms were in power, style-wise. But the new surgeons can do almost anything, you see."
The shadow of a frown crossed Rolf's face. "Anything?"
"Almost. They can't transform an Earther into a s.p.a.cer, and they don't think they ever will."
"Or vice versa?" Rolf asked.
They sn.i.g.g.e.red. "What s.p.a.cer would want to become an Earther? Who would give up that life, out in the stars?"
Rolf said nothing. He kicked at the heap of litter in the filthy street. What s.p.a.cer indeed? he thought. He suddenly realized that the two little Earthers were staring up at him as if he were some sort of beast. He probably weighed as much as both of them, he knew, and at six-four he was better than a foot taller. They looked like children next to him, like toys. The savage blast of acceleration would snap their flimsy bodies like toothpicks.
"What places have you been to?" the earless one asked.
"Two years on Mars, one on Venus, one in the Belt, one on Neptune," Rolf recited. "I didn't like Neptune. It was best in the Belt; just our one s.h.i.+p, prospecting. We made a pile on Ceres--enough to buy out. I shot half of it on Neptune. Still have plenty left, but I don't know what I can do with it." He didn't add that he had come home puzzled, wondering why he was a s.p.a.cer instead of an Earther, condemned to live in filthy s.p.a.certown when Yawk was just across the river.
They were looking at his shabby clothes, at the dirty brownstone hovel he lived in--an antique of a house four or five centuries old.
"You mean you're rich?" the Earther said.
"Sure," Rolf said. "Every s.p.a.cer is. So what? What can I spend it on? My money's banked on Mars and Venus. Thanks to the law I can't legally get it to Earth. So I live in s.p.a.certown."
"Have you ever seen an Earther city?" the earless one asked, looking around at the quiet streets of s.p.a.certown with big powerful men sitting idly in front of every house.
"I used to live in Yawk," Rolf said. "My grandmother was an Earther; she brought me up there. I haven't been back there since I left for s.p.a.ce." They forced me out of Yawk, he thought. I'm not part of their species. Not one of them.
The two Earthers exchanged glances.
"Can we interest you in a suggestion?" They drew in their breath as if they expected to be knocked sprawling.
Kanaday appeared at the door of the shack again.
"Rolf. Hey! You turning into an Earther? Get rid of them two cuties before there's trouble."
Rolf turned and saw a little knot of s.p.a.cers standing on the other side of the street, watching him with curiosity. He glared at them.
"I'll do whatever I d.a.m.n well please," he shouted across.
He turned back to the two Earthers. "Now, what is it you want?"
"I'm giving a party next week," the earless one said. "I'd like you to come. We'd like to get the s.p.a.cer slant on life."
"Party?" Rolf repeated. "You mean, dancing, and games, and stuff like that?"
"You'll enjoy it," the Earther said coaxingly. "And we'd all love to have a real s.p.a.cer there."
"When is it?"
"I have ten days left of my leave. All right," he said. "I'll come."
He accepted the Earther's card, looked at it mechanically, saw the name--Kal Quinton--and pocketed it. "Sure," he said. "I'll be there."
The Earthers moved toward their little jetcar, smiling gratefully. As Rolf crossed the street, the other s.p.a.cers greeted him with cold, puzzled stares.
Kanaday was almost as tall as Rolf, and even uglier. Rolf's eyebrows were bold and heavy; Kanaday's, thick, contorted, bushy clumps of hair. Kanaday's nose had been broken long before in some barroom brawl; his cheekbones bulged; his face was strong and hard. More important, his left foot was twisted and gnarled beyond hope of redemption by the most skillful surgeon. He had been crippled in a jet explosion three years before, and was of no use to the s.p.a.celines any more. They had pensioned him off. Part of the deal was the dilapidated old house in s.p.a.certown which he operated as a boarding-house for transient s.p.a.cers.
"What do you want to do that for?" Kanaday asked. "Haven't those Earthers pushed you around enough, so you have to go dance at one of their wild parties?"
"Leave me alone," Rolf muttered.
"You like this filth you live in? s.p.a.certown is just a ghetto, that's all. The Earthers have pushed you right into the muck. You're not even a human being to them--just some sort of trained ape. And now you're going to go and entertain them. I thought you had brains, Rolf!"
"Shut up!" He dashed his gla.s.s against the table; it bounced off and dropped to the floor, where it shattered.
Kanaday's girl Laney entered the room at the sound of the crash. She was tall and powerful-looking, with straight black hair and the strong cheekbones that characterized the s.p.a.cers. Immediately she stooped and began shoveling up the broken gla.s.s.
"That wasn't smart, Rolf," she said. "That'll cost you half a credit. Wasn't worth it, was it?"
Rolf laid the coin on the edge of the table. "Tell your pal to shut up, then. If he doesn't stop icing me I'll fix his other foot for him and you can buy him a dolly."
She looked from one to the other. "What's bothering you two now?"
"A couple of Earthers were here this morning," Kanaday said. "Slumming. They took a fancy to our young friend here and invited him to one of their parties. He accepted."
"He what? Don't go, Rolf. You're crazy to go."
"Why am I crazy?" He tried to control his voice. "Why should we keep ourselves apart from the Earthers? Why shouldn't the two races get together?"
She put down her tray and sat next to him. "They're more than two races," she said patiently. "Earther and s.p.a.cer are two different species, Rolf. Carefully, genetically separated. They're small and weak, we're big and powerful. You've been bred for going to s.p.a.ce; they're the castoffs, the ones who were too weak to go. The line between the two groups is too strong to break."
"And they treat us like dirt--like animals," Kanaday said. "But they're the dirt. They were the ones who couldn't make it."
"Don't go to the party," Laney said. "They just want to make fun of you. Look at the big ape, they'll say."
Rolf stood up. "You don't understand. Neither of you does. I'm part Earther," Rolf said. "My grandmother on my mother's side. She raised me as an Earther. She wanted me to be an Earther. But I kept getting bigger and uglier all the time. She took me to a plastic surgeon once, figuring he could make me look like an Earther. He was a little man; I don't know what he looked like to start with but some other surgeon had made him clean-cut and straight-nosed and thin-lipped like all the other Earthers. I was bigger than he was--twice as big, and I was only fifteen. He looked at me and felt my bones and measured me. 'Healthy little ape'--those were the words he used. He told my grandmother I'd get bigger and bigger, that no amount of surgery could make me small and handsome, that I was fit only for s.p.a.ce and didn't belong in Yawk. So I left for s.p.a.ce the next morning."
"I see," Laney said quietly.
"I didn't say good-bye. I just left. There was no place for me in Yawk; I couldn't pa.s.s myself off as an Earther any more. But I'd like to go back and see what the old life was like, now that I know what it's like to be on the other side for a while."
"It'll hurt when you find out, Rolf."
"I'll take that chance. But I want to go. Maybe my grandmother'll be there. The surgeons made her young and pretty again every few years; she looked like my sister when I left."
Laney nodded her head. "There's no point arguing with him, Kanaday. He has to go back there and find out, so let him alone."
Rolf smiled. "Thanks for understanding." He took out Quinton's card and turned it over and over in his hand.
Rolf went to Yawk on foot, dressed in his best clothes, with his face as clean as it had been in some years. s.p.a.certown was just across the river from Yawk, and the bridges spanning the river were bright and gleaming in the mid-afternoon sun.
The bombs had landed on Yawk during the long-forgotten war, but somehow they had spared the sprawling borough across the river. And so Yawk had been completely rebuilt, once the radioactivity had been purged from the land, while what was now s.p.a.certown consisted mostly of buildings that dated back to the Twentieth Century.
Yawk had been the world's greatest seaport; now it was the world's greatest s.p.a.ceport. The sky was thick with incoming and outgoing liners. The pa.s.sengers on the s.h.i.+p usually stayed at Yawk, which had become an even greater metropolis than it had been before the Bomb. The crew crossed the river to s.p.a.certown, where they could find their own kind.
Yawk and s.p.a.certown were like two separate planets. There were three bridges spanning the river, but most of the time they went unused, except by s.p.a.cemen going back home or by s.p.a.cemen going to the s.p.a.ceport for embarkation. There was no regular transportation between the two cities; to get from s.p.a.certown to Yawk, you could borrow a jetcar or you could walk. Rolf walked.
He enjoyed the trip. I'm going back home, he thought as he paced along the gleaming arc of the bridge, dressed in his Sunday best. He remembered the days of his own childhood, his parentless childhood. His earliest memory was of a fight at the age of six or so. He had stood off what seemed like half the neighborhood, ending the battle by picking up an older bully, much feared by everyone, and heaving him over a fence. When he told his grandmother about the way he had won the fight she cried for an hour, and never told him why. But they had never picked on him again, though he knew the other boys had jeered at him behind his back as he grew bigger and bigger over the years. "Ape," they called him. "Ape."
But never to his face.
He approached the Yawk end of the bridge. A guard was waiting there--an Earther guard, small and frail, but with a st.u.r.dy-looking blaster at his hip.
"Going back, s.p.a.cer?"
Rolf started. How did the guard know? And then he realized that all the guard meant was, are you going back to your s.h.i.+p?
"No. No, I'm going to a party. Kal Quinton's house."
"Tell me another, s.p.a.cer." The guard's voice was light and derisive. A swift poke in the ribs would break him in half, Rolf thought.
"I'm serious. Quinton invited me. Here's his card."
"If this is a joke it'll mean trouble. But go ahead; I'll take your word for it."
Rolf marched on past the guard, almost nonchalantly. He looked at the address on the card. 12406 Kenman Road. He rooted around in his fading memory of Yawk, but he found the details had blurred under the impact of five years of Mars and Venus and the Belt and Neptune. He did not know where Kenman Road was.
The glowing street signs were not much help either. One said 287th Street and the other said 72nd Avenue. Kenman Road might be anywhere.
He walked on a block or two. The streets were antiseptically clean, and he had the feeling that his boots, which had lately trod in s.p.a.certown, were leaving dirtmarks along the street. He did not look back to see.
He looked at his wristchron. It was getting late, and Kenman Road might be anywhere. He turned into a busy thoroughfare, conscious that he was attracting attention. The streets here were crowded with little people who barely reached his chest; they were all about the same height, and most of them looked alike. A few had had radical surgical alterations, and every one of these was different. One had a unicorn-like horn; another, an extra eye which cunningly resembled his real ones. The Earthers were looking at him furtively, as they would at a tiger or an elephant strolling down a main street.
"Where are you going, s.p.a.cer?" said a voice from the middle of the street.
Rolf's first impulse was to snarl out a curse and keep moving, but he realized that the question was a good one and one whose answer he was trying to find out for himself. He turned.
Another policeman stood on the edge of the walkway. "Are you lost?" The policeman was short and delicate-looking.
Rolf produced his card.
The policeman studied it. "What business do you have with Quinton?"
"Just tell me how to get there," Rolf said. "I'm in a hurry."
The policeman backed up a step. "All right, take it easy." He pointed to a kiosk. "Take the subcar here. There's a stop at Kenman Road. You can find your way from there."
"I'd rather walk it," Rolf said. He did not want to have to stand the strain of riding in a subcar with a bunch of curious staring Earthers.
"Fine with me," the policeman said. "It's about two hundred blocks to the north. Got a good pair of legs?"
"Never mind," Rolf said. "I'll take the subcar."
Kenman Road was a quiet little street in an expensive-looking end of Yawk. 12406 was a towering building which completely overshadowed everything else on the street. As Rolf entered the door, a perfumed little Earther with a flas.h.i.+ng diamond where his left eye should have been and a skin stained bright purple appeared from nowhere.
"We've been waiting for you. Come on; Kal will be delighted that you're here."
The elevator zoomed up so quickly that Rolf thought for a moment that he was back in s.p.a.ce. But it stopped suddenly at the 62nd floor, and, as the door swung open, the sounds of wild revelry drifted down the hall. Rolf had a brief moment of doubt when he pictured Laney and Kanaday at this very moment, playing cards in their mouldering hovel while he walked down this plastiline corridor back into a world he had left behind.
Quinton came out into the hall to greet him. Rolf recognized him by the missing ears; his skin was now a subdued blue to go with his orange robe.
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iii Part 82
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