The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Viii Part 46
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It was a small shop, with an inconspicuous sign down in one corner of the window that said only, "KRUMBEIN--watches," and was probably the most famous shop of its kind in the world. Every s.p.a.ceman landing on Terra left his watch to be checked by the dusty, little old man who was the genius of the place. Tommy ranged wide-eyed about the clock and chronometer crammed interior. He stopped fascinated before the last case. In it was a watch ... but, what a watch! Besides the regulation Terran dial, it had a second smaller dial that registered the corresponding time on Mars. Tommy's whole heart went out to it in an ecstasy of longing. He thought wistfully that if you could know what time it was there, you could imagine what everyone was doing and it wouldn't seem so far away. Haltingly, he tried to explain.
"Look, Mom," he said breathlessly. "It's almost five o'clock at home. Douwie will be coming up to the barn to be fed. Gosh, do you suppose old Pete will remember about her?"
His mother smiled at him rea.s.suringly. "Of course he will, silly. Don't forget he was the one who caught and tamed her for you."
Tommy gulped as he thought of Douwie. Scarcely as tall as himself; the big, rounded, mouselike ears, and the flat, cloven pads that could carry her so swiftly over the sandy Martian flatlands. One of the last dwindling herds of native Martian douwies, burden-carriers of a vanished race, she had been Tommy's particular pride and joy for the last three years.
Behind him, Tommy heard his mother murmur under her breath, "Tom ... the watch; could we?"
And his Dad regretfully, "It's a pretty expensive toy for a youngster, Helen. And even a rabbara raiser's bank account has limits."
"Of course, dear; it was silly of me." Helen smiled a little ruefully. "And if Mr. Krumbein has your watch ready, we must go. Bee and some of her friends are coming over, and it's only a few hours 'till you ... leave."
Big Tom squeezed her elbow gently, understandingly, as she blinked back quick tears. Trailing after them, Tommy saw the little by-play and his heart ached. The guilt-complex building up in him grew and deepened.
He knew he had only to say, "Look, I don't mind staying. Aunt Bee and I will get along swell," and everything would be all right again. Then the terror of this new and complex world--as it would be without a familiar face--swept over him and kept him silent.
His overwrought feelings expressed themselves in a nervously rebelling stomach, culminating in a disgraceful moment over the nearest gutter. The rest of the afternoon he spent in bed recuperating.
In the living room Aunt Bee spoke her mind in her usual, high-pitched voice.
"It's disgraceful, Helen. A boy his age.... None of the Bentons ever had nerves."
His mother's reply was inaudible, but on the heels of his father's deeper tones, Aunt Bee's voice rose in rasping indignation.
"Well! I never! And from my own brother, too. From now on don't come to me for help with your spoiled brat. Good-bye!"
The door slammed indignantly, his mother chuckled, and there was a spontaneous burst of laughter. Tommy relaxed and lay back happily. Anyway, that was the last of Aunt Bee!
The next hour or two pa.s.sed in a flurry of ringing phones, people coming and going, and last-minute words and reminders. Then suddenly it was time to leave. Dad burst in for a last quick hug and a promise to send him pictures of Douwie and her foal, due next month; Mother dropped a hasty kiss on his hair and promised to hurry back from the s.p.a.ceport. Then Tommy was alone, with a large, painful lump where his heart ought to be.
The only activity was the almost noiseless buzzing as the hotel android ran the cleaner over the living room. Presently even that ceased, and Tommy lay relaxed and inert, sleepily watching the curtains blow in and out at the open window. Thirty stories above the street the noises were pleasantly m.u.f.fled and remote, and his senses drifted aimlessly to and fro on the tides of half-sleep.
Drowsily his mind wandered from the hotel's android servants ... to the strictly utilitarian mechanical monstrosity at home, known affectionately as "Old John" ... to the android showroom where they had seen the one that Dad said looked like Mother....
He jolted suddenly, sickeningly awake. Suppose, his mind whispered treacherously, suppose that Dad had ordered one to take Mom's place ... not on Mars, but here while she returned to Mars with him. Suppose that instead of Mom he discovered one of those Things ... or even worse, suppose he went on from day to day not even knowing....
It was a bad five minutes; he was wet with perspiration when he lay back on his pillows, a shaky smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He had a secret defense against the Terror. He giggled a little at the thought of what Aunt Bee would say if she knew.
And what had brought him back from the edge of hysteria was the triumphant knowledge that with the abnormally acute hearing bred in the thin atmosphere of Mars, no robot ever created could hide from him the infinitesimal ticking of the electronic relays that gave it life. Secure at last, his overstrung nerves relaxed and he slid gratefully over the edge of sleep.
He woke abruptly, groping after some vaguely remembered sound. A soft clicking of heels down the hall.... Of course, his mother back from the s.p.a.ceport! Now she would be stopping at his door to see if he were asleep. He lay silently; through his eyelashes he could see her outlined in the soft light from the hall. She was coming in to see if he was tucked in. In a moment he would jump up and startle her with a hug, as she leaned over him. In a moment....
Screaming desperately, he was out of bed, backing heedlessly across the room. He was still screaming as the low sill of the open window caught him behind the knees and toppled him thirty stories to the street.
Alone in the silent room, Helen Benton stood dazed, staring blindly at the empty window.
Tommy's parting gift from his father slid from her hand and lay on the carpet, still ticking gently.
It was 9:23 on Mars.
By Laurence Mark Janifer
Although the Masquerade itself, as a necessary protection against non-telepaths, was not fully formulated until the late years of the Seventeenth Century, groups of telepaths-in-hiding existed long before that date. Whether such groups were the results of natural mutations, or whether they came into being due to some other cause, has not yet been fully determined, but that a group did exist in the district of Offenburg, in what is now Prussia, we are quite sure. The activities of the group appear to have begun, approximately, in the year 1594, but it was not until eleven years after that date that they achieved a signal triumph, the first and perhaps the last of its kind until the dissolution of the Masquerade in 2103.
--Excerpt from "A Short History of the Masquerade," by A. Milge, Crystal 704-54-368, Produced 2440.
Jonas came over the hill whistling as if he had not a care in the world--which was not even approximately true, he reflected happily. The state of complete and utter quiet was both foreign and slightly repugnant to him; he was never more pleased than when he had a job in hand, a job that involved a slight and unavoidable risk.
This time, of course, the risk was more than slight. Why, he thought happily, it was even possible for him to get killed, and most painfully, too! With a great deal of pleasure, he stood for a second at the crest of the hill, his hands on his hips, looking down at the town of Speyer as it baked in the May afternoon sunlight.
"Behold the Tortoise: He maketh no progress unless he sticketh out his neck." But he maketh very little progress unless he pick the right time and place to "sticketh out his neck"--which can be quite a sticky problem for a man in a medieval culture!
Jonas did not, in spite of his pose, look like the typical hero of folk tale or scribe's tome; he was not seven feet tall, for instance, nor did he have a handsome, lovesome face with flas.h.i.+ng blue eyes, or a broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted marvel of a figure. He was, instead, somewhat shorter than the average of men in Europe in 1605 and for some time thereafter. He had small, almost hidden eyes that seemed to see a great deal, but failed completely to make a fuss about the fact. And while his figure was just a trifle dumpy, his face completed the rhyme by being extraordinarily lumpy. The nose, as a matter of strict truth, was hard to distinguish from the other contusions, swellings and marks that covered the head.
Nor, of course, did he carry the sword of a great hero, or a n.o.ble. Jonas had no von to stick on his name, and he had never thought it worth his while to claim one and accept the tiny risk of disclosure. After all, a n.o.ble was only a man like other men.
And, besides, Jonas knew perfectly well that he had no need of a sword.
His adventures, too, were a little out of the common run of tales. Jonas had, he thought regretfully, few duels to look forward to, and he had even fewer to look back on. And, as a maid is won by face, figure and daring, and a wife by riches, position or prospects, there was a notable paucity of lissome ladies in Jonas' career.
All in all, he thought sadly, he was not a usual hero.
But he refused to let the thought spoil his enjoyment. After all, he was a hero, though of his own unique kind; there was no denying that. And, in his own way, he had his reward. He took one hand off his hip to scratch at the top of his head, wondering briefly if he had managed to pick up lice in the last town he had visited, and he took another look at the city.
Speyer seemed a lot better, at first glance, than some of the other places Jonas had visited. For one thing, it had a full town hall, built--no less--of honest stone, and probably a relict of the Roman times. There was the parish church, of course, a good solid wooden structure, and a collection of houses strung along the dirt paths of the town. The houses of the rich were, naturally, wooden; the poor built of baked mud. There were a great many baked-mud structures, and only one wooden one, besides the church, that Jonas could see.
The paths were winding, but comparatively free from slop. That was pleasing, he told himself. And the buildings themselves, wood, mud and stone, cl.u.s.tered in the valley below him as if they were afraid, and needed each other's protection.
Which, in a way, they did. Jonas reflected on that a trifle grimly, thinking of the Holy Inquisition with its hierarchy of priests and lay folk, busily working in Speyer just as it worked in every other town throughout Offenburg, and throughout the civilized world.
Ordinarily, he would not have given it a thought, beyond a pa.s.sing sigh for the ways of the world; he had other business. But now-- He grinned to himself, and the grin turned to a laugh as he started down the hill. The grislier methods of the Inquisitorial process were well-known to him by reputation, and soon he might be testing them out for himself. There was absolutely no way to be sure.
That thought pleased him greatly; after all, he told himself, there was nothing like a little danger to spice the boring business of living. By the time he reached the bottom of the hill, he was whistling loudly.
He stopped at the first house, a mud construction with a badly-carpentered wooden door and a single bare window that looked out on the street. It smelled, but Jonas went up to the door bravely and knocked.
There was no answer. He went on whistling "Fortuna plango vulnera" under his breath, and after a time he knocked again.
This time he heard movement inside the house, and nodded to himself in a satisfied fas.h.i.+on. But almost a minute pa.s.sed before the head of an old woman showed itself at the window. She was really extraordinarily ugly, he thought. She wore a bonnet that did nothing whatever to enhance her doubtful, wrinkled charms, or to conceal them; and besides, it was dirty.
"n.o.body's here," she said in the voice of a very venomous toad. "Go away."
Jonas smiled at her. It was an effort. "Madam--" he began politely.
"n.o.body's home," she repeated, drawing slightly back from the window. "You go away, now."
"Ah," Jonas said pleasantly. "But you're home, aren't you?"
The old woman frowned at him suspiciously. "Now," she said vaguely. "Well."
"This is your house?" he said. "The house where you live?"
"Never saw you before," the old woman said.
"That's right," Jonas said equably.
"You come to turn me out?" she demanded. Her eyebrows--which were almost as big and black as her ancient mustache--came down over glittering little eyes. "I hold this house free and proper," she said in a determined roar, "and n.o.body can take it from me. It belongs to me, and to my children, and to their children, and to the children of those children--"
The catalogue seemed likely to go on forever. "Exactly," Jonas said hastily.
"Well, then," the old woman said, and started to draw back.
Jonas gestured lazily with one hand. "Wait," he said. "I am not going to take your house away from you, madam. I am only here to ask you a question."
"Question?" she said. "You come from Herr Knupf? I'm an old woman but I do no wrong, and there is no one can accuse me of heresy. I am in church every week, and more than once; I keep peace with my neighbors and there's none can say a mystery about me--"
The woman, Jonas thought, was full to the eyebrows with words. Probably, he told himself, trying to be fair, she didn't have anyone to talk to, until a stranger came along.
He sighed briefly. "I do not come from the Inquisitor," he said truthfully, "nor is my question one that should cause you alarm."
The old woman pondered for a minute. She leaned her elbows on the window sill, getting them muddy. But that, Jonas thought, didn't seem to matter to this creature, apparently.
"Ask," she said at last.
Jonas put on his most pleasant expression. "Madam," he said, "I wish to know if there be any family in this town to give room to a wayfarer--understanding, of course, that the wayfarer would insist on paying. Paying well," he added.
The old woman blinked. "You looking for an inn?" she said. "An inn in this town?" The idea appeared to strike her as the very height of idiocy. She covered her face with her hands and shook. After a second Jonas discovered that she was laughing. He waited patiently until the fit had left her.
"Not an inn," he said. "There is no inn here, I know. But a family willing to take in a stranger--"
"Strangers are seldom here," she said. "Herr Knupf watches his flock with zeal."
Which meant, Jonas reflected, that he was in a fair way to get himself burned as a heretic unless he watched his step carefully. "Herr Knupf's fame has reached my own country, far away," he said with some truth. "Nevertheless, a family which--"
"Wait," she said. "You have said that you will pay well. Yet you do not appear rich."
Jonas understood. Fis.h.i.+ng in his sewn pocket, he withdrew a single, s.h.i.+ny coin. "I also wish," he said smoothly, "to pay for any help I may receive--such as the answering of an innocent question, a question in which the respected Inquisitor Knupf can have no interest whatever."
The old woman's eyes went to the coin and stayed there. "Well," she said. "It is said that the family called Scharpe has a house too large for them, now that the elder son is gone; there is only the man, his wife and a daughter. It is said that the man is in need of money; he would accept payment, were it generous, in return for sharing room in his house."
"I would be most grateful," Jonas murmured. He pa.s.sed the coin over; the old woman's hand s.n.a.t.c.hed it and closed on it. "Where might I find this family?" he said.
"It is now late in the afternoon," the old woman said. "Perhaps they are at home. You will see a path which takes you to the left; follow it until you reach the last house. Knock at the door."
"I shall," Jonas said, "and many thanks."
The old woman, still clutching her coin, disappeared from the window as if someone had yanked her back. Jonas turned with relief and got back on the path, but it stank quite as badly as the house had.
He endured the stench--heroically.
Scharpe proved to be a barrel-shaped man who was unaccountably cheerless, as if the inside structure had been carefully removed, and then replaced by sawdust, Jonas thought. Even the offer of seven kroner for a single week's stay failed to produce the delirious joy Jonas had expected.
"The money is needed," Scharpe said in a dour, ba.s.s voice, staring off past Jonas' left ear at the darkening sky. "And for the money, you will be welcome. I must take your word that you are not dangerous; I can only pray that you do not betray that trust."
It was far from a warm welcome, but Jonas was satisfied with it. "I shall work to do you good," he said, "and not evil."
"Stranger," Scharpe said, "work for your own good; do nothing for me. This is an accursed family; there is no good to be done to me, or my wife or child."
Jonas tried to look rea.s.suring. He thought of several things to say about the sunny side of life, and decided on none or them. "My sympathy--" he began.
"Your sympathy may endanger you," Scharpe said. "My son is gone; I pray that there is an end to it."
Jonas peered once into the mind of the man, and recoiled violently; but he had enough, in that one glimpse, to tell him the reason for Scharpe's misery. And it was quite reason enough, he thought.
"We do not mention that name," Scharpe said. "My wife has resigned herself to what has happened; I am not so wise."
"I promise you," Jonas said earnestly, "that you will be in no danger from me. No, more: that I will help you out of your difficulties, and ensure your peace."
"Then you are an angel from Heaven," Scharpe said bitterly. "There is no other help, while the Inquisitor remains and our sons become suspect to his rages."
Jonas shook his head. "There is help," he said, "and you will find it. Your son is gone; accused, questioned, confessed and burnt. But there will be no more."
Scharpe looked at him for a long time. "Come with me," he said at last, and led the way into his mud house. Inside, there was only one large room, but it seemed s.p.a.cious enough for four. Three pallets lay against the far right wall, a single one against the left. Scharpe went to the back of the house, near the single bed. "This will be yours," he said, "while you are with us. It is poor but it is all we can offer."
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Viii Part 46
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