• 4 •
The earthquake struck the city at a few minutes after five that morning.
I woke, because the brass bed was moving. Silver, who could put himself into a kind of psychosthetic trance, not sleep but apparently restful and timeless, came out of it before I did. I thought I’d been dreaming. It was dark, except for the faint sheen of snowlight coming through the half-open curtains. Then I saw the curtains were drawing themselves open, a few inches at a time.
“It’s an earth tremor,” he said to me. “But not a bad one from the feel of it.”
“It’s bad enough,” I cried, sitting up.
The bed had slid over the floor about a foot. Vibrations were running up through the building. I became aware of a weird external noise, a sort of creaking and groaning and cracking, and a screeching I took at first for cries of terror from the city.
“Should we run down into the street?” I asked him.
“No. It’s already settling. The foreshock was about ten minutes ahead of this one, hardly noticeable. It didn’t even wake you.”
A candle fell off a shelf.
“Oh Silver! Where’s the cat?”
“Not here, remember?”
“Yes. I’m going to miss that cat… How can I talk about that in the middle of this?”
He laughed softly, and drew me down into the bed.
“You’re not really afraid, that’s why.”
“No, I’m not. Why not?”
“You’re with me and you trust me. And I told you it was all right.”
“I love you,” I said.
Something heavy and soft hit the window. Then everything settled with a sharp jarring rattle, as if the city were a truck pulling up with a load of cutlery.
Obliquely fascinated, then, I got out of bed and went to the window. The quake had indeed been minor, yet I’d never experienced one before. Part of me expected to see the distant skyline of the city flattened and engulfed by flames—substance of so many tremor-casts on the news channels. But I could no longer see the city skyline at all. Like monstrous snakes, three of the girders in the subsidence had reared up, sloughing their skins of snow in all directions and with great force, like catapults. Some of this snow had thumped the window. Now the girders blocked the view of the city, leaning together in a grotesque parody of their former positions. It was a kind of omen.
Dimly, I could hear a sort of humming and calling.
People running out on the street to discuss what had happened. Then a robot ambulance went by, unseen but wailing; then another and another. There had been casualties, despite the comparative mildness of the shock. I thought of them with compassion, cut off from them, because we were safe. I remember being glad that Egyptia’s play would have finished before the quake. She and Clovis seemed invulnerable.
Only when we were back in bed again, sharing the last tired apple, did I think of my mother’s house on its tall legs of steel. Should I go down to the foyer and call her? But the foyer would probably be full of relatives calling up relatives. What did I really feel?
I told Silver.
“The house felt pretty safe,” he said. “It was well-stabilized. The only problem would be the height, but there’d be compensations for that in the supports.”
“I think I’d know, wouldn’t I? If anything had happened to her. Or would I?”
“Maybe you would.”
“I wonder if she’s concerned for me. She might be. I don’t know. Oh, Silver, I don’t know. I was with her all my life, and I don’t know if she’d be worried for me. But I know you would have been.”
“Yes, you worry me a lot.”
Later on, the caretaker patted on our door and asked if we were okay. I called that we were, and asked after him and the white cat.
“Cat never batted an eyelid. That’s how you can tell, animals. If they don’t take off, you know it’s not going to be a bad one.”
When he left, I felt mean, not telling him we were going. We’d leave what we could for the rent, most of it, in fact, as far as the month had gone. I wanted to say goodbye to the cat. Demeta had always said that cats were difficult to keep in a domestic situation, that they clawed things and got hair on the pillows, and she was right and what the hell did it matter?
I fell asleep against Silver, and dreamed Chez Stratos had fallen out of the sky. There was wreckage and rubble everywhere, and the spacemen picked about in it, incongruously holding trays of tea and toast. “Mother?” I asked the wreckage. “Mother, where are you?”
“Come here, darling,” said my mother. She was standing on a small hill, and wearing golden armor. I saw, with brief horror, that her left hand had been severed, but one of the robot machines was re-attaching it. I went to her, and she embraced me, but the armor was hard and I couldn’t get through it to her, and I wasn’t comforted.
“Your brother’s dead, I’m afraid,” she said, smiling at me kindly.
“Yes, dear. And your father, too.”
I wept, because I didn’t know who they were.
“You must put this onto a tape,” said Demeta. “I’ll play it when I come back.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’m going to make farm machinery. I told you.”
“I don’t remember.”
“That’s because you don’t want to. Come along, Jane. Let go of my armor.”
The Baxter Empire rose into the dusty sky out of the ruins, flattening all of us to the earth with the gale of its ascent. A dismembered monkey lay on the ground where my mother had been standing, and I wondered if this was my brother. Then the monkey changed into Jason, and he wasn’t dismembered, and he said to me, “Hallo, Medea. I put a homing device into a peacock. Wasn’t that fun?”
I woke, and it was getting light. Silver was in the shower, I could hear the cascade of water. I lay and looked at the blue sky of our ceiling as it came clear, and the clouds and the birds and the rainbow. I let the tears go on rolling out of my eyes. I’d never see this ceiling again.
Along with the other things, I’d have to leave my peacock jacket behind too. Were peacocks cursed birds? My mother’s dress, Egyptia’s play, my jacket. I’d have to leave the dress I’d worn under the jacket, too, the dress I’d worn that night we met Jason and Medea as we came off the bridge. I recalled how Jason brushed against me as he ran away. Maybe to run away like that was partly deliberate. They were both good pickpockets, excellent kleptomaniacs—it would have been easy for either of them to slip something adhesive into the fabric. But at two-thirty this morning I’d turned the clothing of that night inside out, and found nothing. Maybe the gadget had fallen out, which could explain how they’d almost traced me but not quite. The thing might have been lying about somewhere in the vicinity, misleading them. On the other hand the gadget might be so cunning that it was invisible to me, but still lodged, and Jason’s failure to get to me due only to some weakness in the device which, given time, he could correct. The micro-magnet in Clovis’s seance glass was almost invisible, and highly accurate, and Jason had worked on that a year ago. They must have sat there by the bridge, just waiting for someone interesting to come along that they could bug, and who should appear but idiotic Jane.
Whatever else, I wouldn’t risk taking that clothing with me. I’d even leave my boots worn that night—I had another shabby, fascinating green pair—I’d even leave my lingerie. I knew the device couldn’t have gone that deep, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
When Silver came out of the shower, I got up, and, very businesslike, used it. I allowed myself only three minutes to lie under the spray and cry at the crimson ceiling and the blue walls and the aeronautic whale.
Dressed, we left the portion of rent money, and the last can of Keep-Kold-Kitty-Meat on the brass bed. Silver wrote the caretaker a note saying a friend was offering us work in a drama in the east. We’d already decided by then to go westward. We’d even talked about Paris, for the future.
I’d packed our clothes into various cloth bags, some of the shawls from the bed, towels, oddments, and, in some curious superstitious urge, the three then currently complete chapters of this. I think I had the notion of putting on our escape as an addendum to the history. Or just of keeping a journal, like lady travelers of old.
Silver carried all the bags and his guitar. I had been entrusted with the blue and gold umbrella.
A little before nine, we sneaked out of the building. The white cat was jauntily stalking its shadow in the street, and ran over to meet us. I nearly suffocated it, holding back my tears.
“If only we could take her with us.”
“The old man needs her more than we do. He’s very fond of her.”
“Yes, I know.”
“We’ll buy a cat.”
“We might even train it to sing.”
A tear fell, despite my efforts, on the cat’s nose, and it sprang away in disgust, awarding me an accidental parting claw on the wrist.
“There you are,” he said. “A farewell present.”
We planned to walk into the center of the city. To get a cab from this area to the outskirts was almost impossible.
As we turned into the boulevard, I saw our estimation of the quake had been premature.
Buckled and humped like a child’s maltreated nondurable toy, the elevated dominated the air and, in surging over, had made havoc of the street below. As I looked at it, I remembered the awful creaking and squealing noises I had heard and then put down to the shifting girders. Being downtown, not a lot was being done about the elevated, though a couple of private demolition vans were cruising about. The vehicular road, however, was closed.
We bought doughnuts at one of the stalls that had missed the eruption of the rusty tracks. The woman stared at us through the steam of her urn.
“Jack’s lost all his glass. All smashed.”
We told her we were sorry, and drank tea and went on.
The quake had not been so very violent in itself, but hitting those areas still weakened and faulted by previous tremors, had taken its toll. It seemed to have come back to collect dues missed twenty years before.
At the first intersection, we came on the confusion that the diversion from the road on the boulevard had caused, jams of vehicles hooting vilely and pointlessly at each other like demented beasts. Farther on, a group of earlier tremor-wrecks twenty-five stories high had given up and collapsed across the street; this road, too, was closed, and more pandemonium had resulted.
As we neared the Arbors, we ourselves were diverted by robot patrols into side streets and alleys. A line of cars had crashed, one after the other, off a fly-over, when it shifted like a sail in the wind.
“This is horrible,” I said inanely.
“Look at that building,” he said.
I looked. There seemed nothing wrong with it. It only occurred to me ten minutes later he’d been directing my eyes away from something lying in the gutter, something I’d only taken for a blown-away bag…
By the time we reached the Beech subway, I was frightened. The tremor, low on the scale, but delving to find any flaw, and split and chew and rend it, had left nightmarish evidence that Tolerance had been lucky.
“From the look of things,” Silver said, “the main force channeled away from the direction of your mother’s house.”
“Yes. And Clovis was in the middle.”
“Do you want to go over to New River and see?”
“No. I feel we’re so conspicuous. But I’ll call him.”
I went into a kiosk and dialed Clovis’s number. Nothing happened, then there was a click. I thought I’d get the sodomy tape, but instead a mechanical voice said: “Owing to seismic disturbance, these lines are temporarily on hold. We stress this does not mean your party is in an affected area, merely that the connecting video and audio links to this kiosk have been impaired.”
I stood there, trembling. I was afraid, for Clovis, and for both of us. Callously, I was frantically asking myself if this would affect our plan. And I had a mental picture of the unknown Gem who was going to fly us, buried under a collapsed tower, or the Historica VLOs in fragments.
Before I came out, I dialed for the time. It was twenty-two minutes to eleven, and we had to be down at Fall Side by twelve—if the plan was still on. We’d just have to act as though it was.
“Silver, the lines are out.”
“That was a chance.”
“How much money have we got?”
He told me.
“We can phone a cab here. They’ll do pickups from Beech, even this end, I think.”
“You could,” he said, “get it to detour past the New River blocks and see what shape they’re in. If there’s a way through.”
That made things easier all around. For one thing, the cab company might be reluctant to make a pickup at lower Beech for out of town. Sometimes cabs are hired, directed out onto the plain, and vandalized. But I added the detour to opulent New River, implying another pickup there, and they agreed.
The cab came in five minutes.
It shot up unusual side roads. Two or three one-way systems had been provisionally dualized. Robot police were everywhere. I was depressed and awed by the way in which the city had been demoralized. Relief fought with panic inside me. The plan might be in ruins, too, but even so, with all this going on, who would be looking out for a stray silver-skinned man?
As we came around from Racine and then up through a previously pedestrians-only subway, and the New River appeared, I caught my breath. Davideed, the studier of silt, could have had a field day here. It looked as if someone had turned the river over with an enormous spatula. Shining icy mud lay in big curls against the banks and on the street, and spattered the fronts of the buildings. But every block was standing. We went by Clovis’s block. Not a brick was out of place, and though some of the air-conditioning boxes on the ground gallery looked askew, none of the upper ones had shifted.
“I think the river provided a pressure outlet,” Silver said.
“He must be safe, then.”
He had to be. As my mother had to be. There wasn’t time to investigate or to worry any further.
The cab spun around the city like a piece of flotsam, catching in jams, getting out of them, for thirty-five minutes before it emerged onto the highway. Then we went slowly for another ten, since, for the few cars trying to get out, hundreds of others were trying to get in. People had come from everywhere, looking for relations and friends in the aftermath, or to sightsee. The local news channel would have carried the news of the quake and excitement, adding the normal useless proviso: Please keep out, which no one, obviously, would attend.
The taxi had a glass-faced clock.
“It’s almost ten to twelve. We’re not going to make it,” I said.
We had come this way a century ago, the road clear save for a purple storm brewing, I with a silver nail through my heart, afraid to speak to him or keep silent.
“Jane, if a man comes over in a VLO and lands the thing, I think you can assume he’ll maybe hang about for a few minutes.”
The cab suddenly detoured on to a side turning.
“Where’s it going?”
“Straight on to route eighty-three, at a guess.”
“How do you know?”
“My city geography program extends several miles beyond the outskirts. Do you realize, in a new city, I’ll be as lost as you will?” A moment later, he said gently to me, “Jane, look.”
I looked out of the window, and far away over the snow-sheeted lines of the land, across the gash of the highway, poised at the topmost mouth of the Canyon, where the flyer air lines glinted like golden cotton, other vertical lines of glitter went up. And in the sky there was a tiny cloud, cool, blue and unmoving. Chez Stratos, that ridiculous house, was still standing, still intact.
Something broke and ebbed away inside me.
“Oh, Silver. After all, I’m so glad.”
A minute more and we plunged down a slope to the ragged ravine that leads into the Fall Side of the Canyon. The cab, not intended to risk its treads, stopped.
It took every coin and bill we had, to pay it the balance. But, in a way, that was ethical.
Soon we were walking down between walls of the frozen earth, he carrying the bags, the guitar, I, the umbrella, to the place where the steps are cut.
The Canyon, which had been created by an ancient quake prior even to the Asteroid, hadn’t been touched by the new one. At the bottom, between the tumbled blocks that give this end its name and close it on three sides, there was a ballroom floor of smooth treeless, rockless snow, hard and bluish as a sort of aluminum. A lovely place for a VLO landing. Secretive, and negotiable only in such a way, or on foot.
The last time on the clock had read as six minutes past noon.
“Have we missed it?” I asked. But I smiled at myself. We would have seen it going over if we had, we had been close enough.
“Oh, I should think so.”
It was very very cold in the Fall. It was like standing in the bowl of a metal spoon. Strange echoes came and whispers went. The growl of the plane, when it arrived, would be deafening.
“He is, of course, late,” I said.
“Eight minutes. What do we do if he doesn’t come?”
“You’ll curse him. I’ll carry you back to the city.”
“Carry you. The whole twenty, thirty miles. Running at eighty miles an hour all the way, if you like. The highway is comparatively flat.”
I laughed, and my laugh rang around the silver spoon.
“If he doesn’t, I dare you to.”
“No dare. It’s easy.”
“And terribly inconspicuous.”
And then I heard the plane.
“Oh, Silver. Isn’t it wonderful? It’s going to work.”
I stared into the sky, but all I saw was its lavender-blue wintryness.
“Can you see the plane, Silver?”
“No,” he said, “I can’t. And the reason for that is, I think, that there isn’t one. The Canyon sides are distorting some other sound.”
“A car. Yes, listen. Brakes.”
“Why would a car stop here?”
“Then something has gone wrong.”
I can only describe the feeling this way: It was as though someone loosened a valve in each of my limbs simultaneously, and some precious vital juice ran out of me. I felt it go with an actual physical ache, sickening and final. My lips were frozen, my tongue was wood, but I managed to make them move. “Silver… The rocks behind us. I can’t get by them, but you can. You can run over them, jump them, and go down the other side. And up the Canyon. I won’t come because, if you carry me, it would have to slow you, make it that much more awkward. Because the surface—isn’t flat. You said, a flat surface.”
He turned and looked at me. His face was attentive, the eyes flattening out, cold gold-red fires.
“It wouldn’t be so easy over rocks, no. Much, much slower.”
“You’ll need to be fast.”
“What is it?”
“It’s—I don’t know. But I know you have to run. Now, Silver.”
“Not without you.”
“They can’t do anything to me.”
“They can do everything to you. You’re no longer coded. If someone wants me, and I’m no longer here.”
It came to me he knew what I meant before even I knew it. He had always known then, better than I, that they—that they—
“I don’t care, Silver. Please, please run away.”
He didn’t move, except he turned to face the way we had come, and I, helpless, powerless, turned to do the same. As we did so, he said, “And anyway, my love, they’d have, I think, some means of stopping me from getting very far.”
They. Five figures were coming down the steps onto the ballroom floor. They all wore fur coats, fur hats. They looked like bears. They were funny.
They came toward us quite slowly. I don’t think it was deliberate. They were cold, and the way was slippery. I didn’t know any of them, and then the snow-light slicked across two panes of glass.
The VLO wasn’t coming. It didn’t exist. Electronic Metals existed. Clovis had betrayed us, after all.
“There’s still time,” I tried to say.
“Not really,” he said. He turned away from them again and stood in front of me so I wouldn’t see them. He blotted them out, as long ago he’d blotted out the harsh light and fear of the world, so I could learn to bear it. “Listen,” he said. “None of this matters. What we’ve had matters—listen to me. I love you. You’re a part of me. I’m a part of you. You can’t ever lose that. I’m with you the rest of your life.”
“Yes. Trust me. It’s true. And I’m not afraid of this. I was only afraid for you. Do you understand?”
I shook my head. He took my hands and held them against his face, and he looked at me, and he smiled at me. And then he glanced back again, and they were very close.
Swohnson was in the lead.
“You’ve been a bit of a silly girl,” he said to me, “creeping off with your friend’s property. It isn’t, ah, legal, you know.”
I don’t think he recognized me, but he disliked me just the same. I’d made him come out in the cold. He always got the rotten jobs—placating the mob and irate callers, shutting the gate, doing the visual interviews and acting dumb, chasing runaway machines and female children across the winter countryside.
I couldn’t say a word that would alter anything, but the words tried to come, and Swohnson showed his teeth at me and said, “You’re lucky if no one lodges charges. Not that that’s our business. Our business is this, here. Didn’t you know how dangerous these things can be? They can short out at a second’s, er, notice. A faulty line. Yes, you’ve been bloody lucky.”
I started to plead, and then I stopped. Silver was standing by me, looking at them silently. None of them looked in his eyes.
“Er, yes. Give us the lady’s bags,” said Swohnson. “Um, you take the guitar, will you,” he added to one of the other four bears. “That’s E.M. property.”
Silver put down the bags quietly. Men picked them up. He handed the guitar to the elected man, who said, “Thanks—Oh, shit,” and bit his mouth.
“Yes, they’re convincing,” Swohnson said. “Till they blow a gasket. Now, young lady. We stopped your cab on the road. It’ll take you back to the city.”
“She hasn’t,” Silver said, “got the fare.”
They all started. Swohnson coughed. He swung around on another bear. “Go and put some, ah, cash in the damn cab. Enough for the ride.”
The bear hurried off. They were obedient henchmen. If Silver resisted them, would they be enough to stop him? And then I saw something come out of Swohnson’s pocket, in his gloved paw. He toyed with it, so I could see the buttons.
“Don’t,” Silver said, “do it in front of her.”
Swohnson coughed again. His breath fluffed through the air. The Canyon vibrated.
“Oh, don’t worry. You don’t think we’d carry you to the car when you can walk? Start walking now. Left, right. Left, right.”
Silver walked, and I walked. The men walked with us. No one spoke. We went up the steps and came out in the ravine. When we got to the top, the cab was back, a bear leaning on one side.
“All paid up and primed for the city center,” he said, quite cheerfully. “All right? Mr. Swohnson?”
Swohnson walked on, and Silver walked, and I tried to and one of the bears caught my arm and prevented me. My bags were lying by the taxi.
“Here’s your cab, now, please.”
“Let me,” I said. “Let me come with you. As far as—the center.”
“Sorry, madam. No.”
“Let me. Please. I won’t do anything.”
Silver was taller than they were. He walked like an actor playing a young king. The cloak flared from his shoulders. His hair blazed through the monochrome white-blueness of the day, as he walked away from me toward the long black car like an ancient hearse.
“You see,” I said to the man, smiling, plucking at his sleeve, “you see I’d much rather.”
He shook me off. Agitated, he said, “It’s only a bit of metal. I know it looks—but it isn’t. Let it go, can’t you. They’re dangerous. It could hurt you. We just take them apart. Melt it down. It’ll be over in another hour. That’s no time, is it. Nothing to fret about.”
I held out my hands to him and he backed away.
Silver moved in a graceful bow to get into the car. The windows were tinted like Swohnson’s spectacles, and I couldn’t see him anymore, not even the fire of his hair, his hair, his hair.
Swohnson got into the car. The others called. The man who had stopped me ran up the road to them, slipping once and almost going down.
“Please,” I said to the empty distance between us.
Their car started. Snow fanned away from it. It moved powerfully. It raced and dwindled.
“Please,” I said.
It was gone.
Automatically, I fumbled to open the taxi door, and one by one I loaded the bags into it, and the umbrella. Then I got in and shut the door.
I sat in the taxi. I wasn’t crying. I was making a little noise, very low, I can’t describe it. I couldn’t seem to stop. I think I may have been trying still to say “Please.” I sat and watched the clock in the taxi.
I didn’t even think of going after them. They had, at least, taught me that.
It’ll be over in another hour.
When you leave me, there’s nothing.
There’s all the world.
It’ll be over, in another hour.
Where the cat had scratched me, my wrist hurt.
I watched the clock. I didn’t visualize any of what they did to him. I didn’t wonder about it. I didn’t feel him die.
“Jack’s lost all his glass. All smashed.”
When the hour was up, I took off my left boot and smashed the glass over the taxi clock, and taking up the largest shard I could find I cut my wrists with it.
Blood is very red. I began to feel warm. Everything grew dark. But in the dark, little bright silver flames were turning and burning…
When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night…
Somewhere there was a great rushing and roaring. The sky was falling. The sky with its Silver stars, his hands, his feet, his limbs, his torso, even his genitals scattered to give light, dismembered like Osiris, Romeo, Dionysos.
The sky fell in the Canyon.
Later, the door of the cab was wrenched open.
“Oh, Jesus,” someone said to me. I heard this someone retching and fighting to control the spasms. But I closed my eyes and slept.