The Currents of Space (Page 33)

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And then it all began exploding at once, and he had the answer. He knew he had the answer, and it was what he had not expected.

He had called a meeting once again. The chronometer now said two twenty-nine.

They were beginning to appear now. Bort first, lips compressed and a rough hangnailed finger rasping against the grain of his grizzly-stubbled cheek. Then Steen, his face freshly washed clear of its paint and presenting a pallid, unhealthy appearance. Balle, indifferent and tired, his cheeks sunken, his armchair well cushioned, a glass of warm milk at his side. Lastly Rune, two minutes late, wet-lipped and sulky, sitting in the night once again. This time his lights were dimmed to the point where he was a hazy bulk sitting in a cube of shadow which Fife’s lights could not have illuminated though they had had the power of Sark’s sun.

Fife began. "Squires! Last year I speculated on a distant and complicated danger. In so doing I fell into a trap. The danger exists, but it is not distant. It is near us, very near. One of you already knows what I mean. The others will find out shortly."

"What do you mean?" asked Bort shortly.

"High treason!" shot back Fife.

10. The Fugitive

MYIILYN TEBENS was not a man of action. He told himself that as an excuse, since now, leaving the spaceport, he found his mind paralyzed.

He had to pick his pace carefully. Not too slowly, or he would seem to be dawdling. Not too quickly, or he would seem to be running. Just briskly, as a patroller would walk, a patroller who was about his business and ready to enter his ground-car.

If only he could enter a ground-car! Driving one, unfortunately, did not come within the education of a Florinian, not even a Florinian Townman, so he tried to think as he walked and could not. He needed silence and leisure.

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And he felt almost too weak to walk. He might not be a man of action but he had acted quickly now for a day and a night and part of another day. It had used up his lifetime’s supply of nerve.

Yet he dared not stop.

If it were night he might have had a few hours to think. But it was early afternoon.

If he could drive a ground-car he could put the miles between himself and the City. Just long enough to think a bit before deciding on the next step. But he had only his legs.

If he could think. That was it. If he could think. If he could suspend all motion, all action. If he could catch the universe between instants of time, order it to halt, while he thought things through. There must be some way.

He plunged into the welcome shade of Lower City. He walked stiffly, as he had seen the patrollers walk. He swung his shock stick in a firm grip. The streets were bare. The natives were huddling in their shacks. So much the better.

The Townman chose his house carefully. It would be best to choose one of the better ones, one with patches of colored plastic briquets and polarized glass in the windows. The lower orders were sullen. They had less to lose. An "upper man" would be falling over himself to help.

He walked up a short path to such a house. It was set back from the street, another sign of affluence. He knew he would have no need of pounding the door or breaking it in. There had been a noticeable movement at one window as he walked up the ramp. (How generations of necessity enabled a Florinian to smell the approach of a patroller.) The door would open.

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It did open.

A young girl opened it, her eyes white-rimmed circles. She was gawky in a dress whose frills showed a determined effort on the part of her parents to uphold their status as something more that the ordinary run of "Florinian trash." She stood aside to let him pass, her breath coming quickly between parted lips.

The Townman motioned to her to shut the door. "Is your f ather here, girl?"

She screamed, "Pa!" then gasped, "Yes, sir!"

"Pa" was moving in apologetically from anothei~ room. He came slowly. It was no news to him that a patroller was at the door. It was simply safer to let a young girl admit him. She was less apt to be knocked down out of hand than he himself was, if the patroller happened to be angry.

"Your name?" asked the Townman.

"Jacof, if it please you, sir."

The Townman’s uniform had a thin-sheeted notebook in one of its pockets. The Townman opened it, studied it briefly, made a crisp check mark and said, "Jacof! Yes! I want to see every member of the household. Quickly!"

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If he could have found room for any emotion but one of hopeless oppression, Terens would almost have enjoyed himself. He was not immune to the seductive pleasures of authority.

They filed in. A thin woman, worried, a child of about two years wriggling in her arms. Then the girl who had admitted him and a younger brother.

"That’s all?"

"Everyone, sir," said Jacof humbly.

"Can I tend the baby?" asked the woman anxiously. "It’s her nap time. I was putting her to bed." She held the young child out as though the sight of young innocence might melt a patroller’s heart.

The Townman did not look at her. A patroller, he imagined, would not have, and he was a patroller. He said, "Put it down and give it a sugar sucker to keep it quiet. Now, you! Jacof!"

"Yes, sir."

"You’re a responsible boy, aren’t you?" A native of whatever age was, of course, a "boy."

"Yes, sir." Jacof’s eyes brightened and his shoulders lifted a trifle. "I’m a clerk in the food-processing center. I’ve had mathematics, long division. I can do logarithms."

Yes, the Townman thought, they’ve shown you how to use a table of logarithms and taught you how to pronounce the word.

He knew the type. The man would be prouder of his logarithms than a Squireling of his yacht. The polaroid in his windows was the consequence of his logarithms and the tinted briquets advertised his long division. His contempt for the uneducated native would be equal to that of the average Squire for all natives and his hatred would be more intense since he had to live among them and was taken for one of them by his betters.

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