It had been raining all morning the day Alban Javier left Aurora: a dull, cold, persistent drizzle out of a uniformly gray sky. Looking up from under the wide brim of his hat, Javier wished that the rain could have been accompanied at least by roiling thunderheads and crashing lightning—something that would have lent dignity to the event taking place. But perhaps it was more fitting this way, he told himself blackly. It was, after all, with a whimper instead of a bang that mankind was abandoning this world.
He had been scheduled to leave on the nine A.M. flight, but it was now nearly two and his part of the long line had barely made it past the landing field's inner gate. Behind him, outside the fence, the waiting crowd had abandoned any semblance of order and was pressing close to the mesh, taking advantage of the minuscule shelter offered by the fence's two-meter overhang. Javier glanced back at them from time to time, but always turned away quickly. Too many of the rain hats and poncho hoods had bits of pure-white hair poking from beneath them, and with the nearer ones Javier could see the emerald green of their eyes as well. It was something like looking in a multiple-image mirror, and it made him feel all the more uncomfortable.
Ahead of him, the line shuffled forward a half meter. Picking up his single travelbag—all that the colonists were permitted to bring—Javier moved up and focused on the building into which the line ultimately disappeared. A good hundred meters away yet. Still, a considerable number of the city's residents had left in the past week. Perhaps the inevitable trance would hold off long enough for him to escape finally into space.
It didn't. He had, in fact, covered barely five more meters when the familiar tingle rippled through his body, and as his muscles locked in place the gray rain faded from before him....
A fireball becomes a river of flame racing through a dark, narrow corridor, erupting finally from a wood-shored entrance to blacken the grassy knoll above. The screams from within fill the air, but even as swearing rescuers plunge into the mine they are fading into the silence of death. Those still alive are brought out first, their agony muted by drugs. The rescuers who carry out the dead are no longer swearing. All are grim-faced; some are crying. The blackened bodies pass closely enough to touch....
And Javier was back on Aurora, standing in the rain with knotted muscles and a throat full of nausea. Behind him someone—a younger teen, probably—was sobbing with reaction. Ahead of him, the people had bunched together a bit more closely, leaving a small bubble of space around him, as if he were the carrier of some loathsome disease. He didn't bother to turn around; he knew that his own inner horror was mirrored in a hundred pairs of green eyes, and he had no desire to see it. Even misery could get tired of company.
With a shuddering sigh he slid a wet hand under his collar and massaged the taut neck muscles there. One final going-away present, he thought dully; with love, from Aurora.
The cubicle euphemistically referred to as the kitchen manager's office was about the size of a king-sized coffin, Javier decided as he stood silently in the half- meter of space between the front wall and the cluttered desk. Wedged into a chair across the mound of paper was a man so fat that it was hard to understand how he had ever gotten into such a limited area. Unbidden, an irreverent thought flickered through Javier's sense of futility: that Hugo Schultz had been placed behind the desk as a child and allowed to grow into his current position.
Schultz looked up from the application he'd been reading and fixed Javier with a pig-eyed stare. "You didn't put down what job you wanted," he said, his voice just loud enough to cut through the sounds of the hotel kitchen that the cubicles walls made only token effort to keep out.
"I'll take anything that's open," Javier said simply, matching the other's volume.
Schultz nodded. "Uh-huh. I see you've got Earth citizenship. You born here?"
A lie would be so easy—and so useless. Javier's entire public information file was available via a single phone call, should Schultz choose to check on it. Besides, to anyone who had followed the events at the frontier over the past few years, his hair and eyes were a dead giveaway. "No, I was born on Aurora."
"Thought so," Schultz grunted. "You're a Cassandra, then?"
Javier winced at the term, but its use was far too widespread these days to be avoided. "Yes."
Schultz grunted again and studied the application some more. "A master's degree, no less. You get that on Earth?"
"No, on Aurora."
"I thought all the schools went when the rest of the planet fell apart."
"They did. But I was one of the first of my generation—the first generation of Cassandras. The society didn't begin its collapse until we entered the labor force, and by then I had my degree." He shuddered slightly at the memories. "I stayed on Aurora to try and help. Six months later Earth ordered the planet evacuated."
"At Aurora's request." The words were heavy with accusation.
"Yes," Javier acknowledged, making no effort to defend Aurora's leaders or their decision. On some worlds of the Colonia, he'd discovered, the stigma of being from a failed colony was almost as bad as that associated with his Cassandra visions, and he had long since tired of both fights.
Schultz's expression didn't change, but his voice softened a shade. "Why? What were you running from?"
"Ourselves. Each other. The visions." Javier shook his head. "You can't understand what it's like, Mr. Schultz. Never anything but people dying—usually on a massive scale, and always so close you can practically smell them." "But they don't come true, do they? That's what I heard, anyway."
"Enough do," Javier said. "A few percent, I suppose. But that doesn't really help. All it does is add uncertainty to the whole thing, like watching a laser being aimed at someone and not knowing whether it's charged or not."
"Did leaving Aurora help?"
There it was at last: the question that, in one form or another, everyone eventually got around to. Have the trances stopped coming? Again, the temptation was to lie; again, he knew it would be useless. "Not really. Scattering us around the Colonia eliminated the group trances, but that's about all."
"Those are the ones where someone had a seizure and half the Cassandras in the city joined in?"
"Sort of," Javier said carefully. They were treading on dangerous ground here. He would have to watch what he said.
"The story goes that every time the dust cleared from one of those you had a bunch of dead people and a mess of wrecked equipment." Schultz's steady gaze had challenge in it.
Javier understood; it was a roundabout way of asking another familiar question. "The deaths came about mainly when people driving or working heavy machinery weren't able to stop before the trance began. But we always get a couple seconds' warning, so for most jobs there really isn't any danger, either to ourselves or anyone else."
"You were pretty stupid to let Cassandras do that sort of work."
Javier shrugged. "We didn't have much choice. The entire third generation had the curse, and the work force desperately needed us. Anyway, the deaths and damage weren't all that devastating in themselves. It was the panic and fear that went with all of it."
Schultz held his gaze for a moment and then dropped his eyes to the application again. Javier waited silently, listening to the muted clatter of dishes around him and trying to ignite at least a spark of hope. The effort was futile. Schultz was far too smart not to have realized that someone with Javier's education wouldn't be looking for work in a hotel kitchen unless he was desperate. Bracing himself, Javier waited for the inevitable turndown.
"All right," Schultz grunted abruptly. "You can start on dishwasher and cleanup duties. Our stuff's not very fancy—sonic washers and brooms—but it's not likely to get away from you, either. If you're carrying a stack of dishes or something and it happens, put them down, pronto. And don't tell any of the other kitchen staff where you're from. They're not too bright, most of them," he added, anticipating Javier's obvious question, "and probably won't connect the hair and eyes to Aurora."
"I... yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Javier said, thrown off balance by the unexpected response.
"Sure. One other thing." Again the pig-eyes bored into Javier's face. "How often do you get these trances of yours?"
"Two or three times a week, usually, in a big city; maybe once a month in a less populated area."
"What's your accuracy rate?"
"About five percent. All the ones that do come true seem to happen within twenty-four hours of the vision."
"One in twenty. Not too good, is it? So okay, here's the deal. You get a vision, you keep it to yourself. I don't want to hear about it, and I don't want the staff to hear about it. Life in New York is hectic enough without doomsayings that probably won't happen. Got that?"
"Good." Abruptly, Schultz raised his voice in a shout that made Javier jump.
A moment later the door at Javier's right popped open and a thin, weasellike face peered in. "Yeah, boss?"
"This is Javier; he's on cleanup duty. Show him around and get him started."
"Sure." Wonky tossed a broken-toothed grin at Javier. "Let's go, kid."
"You like the boss, Javier? Huh?" Wonky asked as they left the cubicle.
"He seems very fair," Javier answered cautiously.
Wonky nodded vigorously. "Yeah, sure is. Friend of mine, good friend. Knew him in Jersey, couple years ago. He told me if I ever needed a job just come to him. So I did."
Javier nodded. Wonky was a thin youth with darting eyes and quick movements. He had probably grown up on the city's streets, his scars and missing teeth the dues of survival. Such people hadn't existed on Aurora, but Javier had met many in the old cities of Earth. None of the younger worlds of the Colonia, he had once heard, had been in existence long enough to develop the vast social and economic disparities of the mother world. Give them time, though, and the slums would come.
He shook off the mood. It was probably natural—maybe even inevitable—for a Cassandra to lean toward morbid thoughts. But such borderline self-pity should not be overdone, especially on a day like today. He had a job!
Now if only he could keep it.
The first few days went well. The work itself was, of course, childishly simple, and Javier quickly learned all that Wonky could tell him about the kitchen and its operation. Of the hotel served by the dining facilities he learned nothing. Wonky's duties as busboy ended at the edge of the dining room; so, effectively, did his world.
Javier threw himself into his job with a will and efficiency that caused many puzzled looks and—inevitably—snide comments from his fellow workers. The strange coloring of his hair and eyes probably also slowed their acceptance of him, but if anyone actually identified the newcomer as a Cassandra he kept that knowledge to himself.
Strangely enough, Wonky seemed immune to the general aloofness and would often hang around Javier during slow times. His conversational range was limited, but Javier learned many helpful tips about living in the big city from him. He was grateful, too, for the company.
Luck was with him in another guise, as well: his first three visions occurred outside of working hours, away from the hotel. Two happened in the tiny rundown room he had rented a few blocks away, the other as he was walking home one afternoon. As always, they were images of disasters: an aircar crash, an earthquake, and a flash flood. And as usual, they did not come true, at least not as far as a check of the news media could establish. Years ago, Javier had believed he would get used to the visions, as one could get used to nightmares or scenes of violence on the evening news. Now, though, he knew differently. There was an overpowering immediacy to the disasters he was forced to witness, an accuracy of sensory detail that made them as real to him as anything else in the world. To deny the visions at any level would require similar denial of all reality, and Javier wasn't yet desperate enough to yield to insanity.
He'd been at work for almost a week when Wonky came in from the dining room with a load of dishes and the look of a kid with a secret. "Hey, Javier, guess what I just saw in the dining room."
"What?" Javier asked. His eyes and most of his attention were on the sonic washer, which had a tendency to drift off its proper frequency and rattle the dishes.
"There's a girl out there who looks just like you," the other grinned.
The washer was suddenly forgotten. "What do you mean?"
"You know—got the same hair as you. Same green eyes, too. I saw her up close." Another Cassandra? Here? "Show me, will you?"
Wonky led the way to the swinging doors that opened into the dining room. Opening one of them a crack, he gestured beyond it. "Next to the wall."
Javier squinted through the opening. Details were hard to see at that distance, but he was almost sure—
She turned in his general direction for a second and he stiffened. Pulling off his apron, he tossed it to Wonky. "I'm going to talk to her. Cover for me, okay?"
"Hey, wait, you're not supposed—" The rest of Wonky's protest was cut off by the closing door. Feeling horribly conspicuous, Javier threaded his way through the maze of tables. "Excuse me," he said as he reached the girl's side. "Are you Melynn Uhland?"
She glanced up, then took a longer look. "Yes. Do I know you?"
"I doubt it. My name's Alban Javier. I went to Aurora Northern, too, but I was a year behind you. Mainly, I know your picture from news reports of your work with Dr. Rayburn."
"What can I do for you?" she asked coolly.
"Uh—may I sit down?" This wasn't going quite as Javier had expected it to and he was beginning to get flustered.
She hesitated, then nodded curtly. He sank gratefully into the seat at her right. "I—well, I just wanted to find out what's happening in your work," he told her. "The articles I've read don't really say much."
"The final report won't, either," she said, her voice strangely flat. "At least, it won't say what you want to hear."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean we haven't found a way to stop the visions."
Javier froze. "But... you said final report."
"That's right. We're quitting."
He started to speak, but no sound came out of his suddenly dry mouth. He tried again. "You can't do that. I mean—look, we've been living with this for fifteen years, some of us. We've had friends die and other friends go permanently psychotic. We can't stop until we find a cure."
"What do you mean, we?" Melynn snapped, green eyes blazing. "I'm the one who's been living in Rayburn's hellhole, not you." She glared at him for a moment as he sat there, speechless. Then, lowering her gaze, she passed her hand across her forehead; and when she again raised her eyes the anger was gone. "Alban," she said quietly, "I know what you're going through. Just because I was working with Dr. Rayburn doesn't mean I didn't get my share of the fear and misunderstanding everyone dumps on us. I did. And the job... it was ten times worse than Aurora. The staff spent half their time trying to learn what triggers the trances, and the other half looking for a way to suppress them." She shook her head. "Nothing worked, but they tried everything. I had to live through changes in diet, environment, biorhythm—I don't remember all of them. Some of them—a lot of them—made either the vision or side effects worse. I've lost ten kilograms since we started, and been on the brink of a nervous breakdown twice. Others of us weren't that lucky—two of our original eighteen are dead, and another four might as well be. I've been Dr. Rayburn's only test subject for three months now; everyone else had to drop out. Alban, I want to find out how to stop the trances; I want it so badly I dream about it. But I can't do any more. I've paid my pound of flesh. It's up to someone else now."
"I'm sorry," he said. Dimly, he was aware of how inadequate the words were, but at the moment another, more urgent thought was uppermost in his mind. "Tell me," he asked carefully, "did they ever figure out what triggers the visions?"
It was as if a thin glaze of ice had dropped over the emerald of her eyes; and in that moment Javier knew that she, too, knew the truth. "No," she said in a low voice. "And I doubt they ever will."
He nodded, trying to dislodge the lump that had formed in his throat. "You could have made it easier on yourself, you know, if you'd just told them."
Her smile was bitter. "You don't find enough hatred directed toward you, Alban? You want to try living among people who know how your visions come to you?"
"No." Javier glanced at the people sitting nearby, but if they were listening they gave no sign of it. "I'm sorry; it was a stupid comment."
"That's all right." She touched his arm. "I'm sorry, too—I didn't need to be sarcastic. I'm just very burned out right now."
"Any way I can help?"
She shook her head. "Thanks, but no. I'm just passing through, actually—I'm heading up to the most desolate part of northern Newfoundland I can afford to get to." She smiled faintly. "My first choice was central Australia, but Dr. Rayburn's budget couldn't stretch that far."
Javier nodded. "I guess I'd better get back," he said. "Thanks for talking to me."
She caught his wrist as he started to get up. "Look, Alban, I'm sorry I—well, I know how much you and everyone else has been counting on us. And we did turn up one bright spot: the virus that linked into our parents' chromosomes apparently requires a naked protein from the Auroran biosphere to make its linkage properly, and the pseudogene it forms is highly recessive besides. That means that unless you marry another Cassandra your children won't have it; and even if you do the pseudogene will probably break off and disappear before your grandchildren can inherit it."
He swallowed, unsaid, the first words that came to mind. If she wanted to see that as a bright spot it wasn't his place to burst her bubble. "Well, that's something," he said instead. "I—good luck with your trip, Melynn; I hope it helps you."
"Thanks. Good-bye, and good luck to you, too."
He made his way back to the kitchen through the sea of covertly staring eyes and returned to work, feeling a familiar numbness settling over his brain. Somewhere deep inside him, he knew, part of the drive that kept him going had died. He had never honestly admitted to himself just how much hope he had been putting in Dr. Rayburn's work; the true quantity was now painfully clear. Rayburn was the last major researcher still working on the Cassandra trances. If he was giving up, then that was it. The visions would be with Javier now until his death, ending forever any chance he might have had to live a normal life. A wife and children... he almost wished Melynn would be able to keep such a naive hope. But outside Rayburn's lab it was unlikely to last. The real world was a sobering experience for social outcasts.
Somehow Javier managed to make it through the day, and by evening his bitterness and frustration had abated somewhat. Many people throughout history, he told himself as he walked home, had survived without hope; he could, if necessary, do likewise. Besides, he seemed to be lucky these days. Maybe luck would serve him where hope had failed.
Two days later, his luck ran out.
He was sweeping the kitchen floor when the two-second warning came, and he had just time to step close to a wall before his muscles locked in place and the world faded away....
Lying on its side is the tangled wreckage of a tube train, squeezed between the tracks and the tunnel wall. Smoke and fire are everywhere, the crackling of flames mingling with the screams of the injured and the shouts of rescue workers. From outside the tunnel comes a barely audible roll of thunder, the sound strangely incongruous in the midst of the carnage. An eddy in the air currents momentarily clears the smoke from one car's number plate: 1404. From somewhere inside a scream goes on and on....
"Hey, Javier! Hey!"
The voice came from far away, scared and insistent. Gradually, the train wreck faded from sight. The usual wave of nausea rose into Javier's throat, and he screwed his eyes shut as he fought it down. His muscles trembled with tension and adrenaline shock, and his head ached fiercely. Opening his eyes carefully, he found himself looking into Wonky's anxious face. "I'm okay, Wonky," he croaked through dry lips. "Don't worry."
The weasel face relaxed only fractionally. "What happened, kid? You looked like you were seeing a ghost."
"I saw a train wreck," Javier said. The headache and nausea were beginning to recede now. A violent shiver swept through his body, scooping up tension and leaving weakness in its wake. "It's okay, though," he added as Wonky's eyes widened, "it happens to me a lot. The trance only lasts a few seconds."
"Gardam! You one of them whatchyasay—fortunetellers? What'd you see?"
Javier's hands ached, and he suddenly realized he was still squeezing the broom handle. "I'm not a fortune-teller. I just see these things sometimes. Look, I'm not supposed to talk about it."
"What'd you see?" Wonky persisted.
Javier sighed, but he lacked the emotional energy to argue. Haltingly, he described the vision in as much detail as he could stand. "Now please don't tell anyone else about me, okay?" he said when he had finished. "Mr. Schultz told me not to—"
He was cut off by a sudden grip on his arm. "Hey! The fourteen-hundred cars are always on the Paterson train—that's the one Mr. Schultz goes home in!" Wonky flicked a glance at the wall clock. "Gardam, he's gone already. C'mon, we got to stop him!"
"Wait a sec," Javier protested, but it was too late. Wonky's wiry body was a lot stronger than it looked, and before Javier could break loose he found himself outside in the hot, muggy air.
"Hold it," he tried again. "Mr. Schultz told me not to tell him about any visions I saw."
"You just gonna let him die?" Wonky snorted. He took off through the late- afternoon crowd of pedestrians, moving like a combination jackrabbit and bulldozer. Javier ran after him, and managed to catch up again two blocks later.
"Wait, Wonky, hold on," he said, trying not to pant. "Look, it may not come true. Probably won't, actually. Hey, remember it thundered in the vision? Look, no thunder!"
It was no use. Wonky had gotten it into his head that his boss/friend was in danger and no one was going to stop him from delivering a warning. Groaning inwardly, Javier followed, wondering what he was going to do.
They reached the tube station minutes later and Wonky, who obviously was familiar with the layout, headed off to the left. Shivering as sweaty skin met the air-conditioning, Javier plunged through the crowd after him. A low rumble made him glance back at the entrance before he'd gone very far. He shivered again, this time not from the cool air, and hurried on. Outside, it was starting to rain.
Hugo Schultz was easy to spot, his huge girth making him stand out among the other commuters. Javier hesitated, but Wonky showed no signs of uncertainty. He caught up to Schultz just as the latter was about to step into a waiting train. Pulling him out of line—no mean feat—Wonky launched into an animated monologue. From his position Javier couldn't hear what was being said, but Schultz's face quickly clouded over with anger. Twice he tried to pull from Wonky's grip, but the little man hung on grimly, letting go only when the train began to move down the tunnel. As it passed, Javier noted the number on one of its cars: 1404.
He looked back to see Schultz bearing down on him, face livid with rage, with a relieved but puzzled-looking Wonky in his wake. "Javier!" the fat man bellowed. "I thought I told you to keep your damned tricks to yourself. Now you've made me miss my train, and you've got Wonky all in a lather—"
"Boss, he saved your life," Wonky said.
"Mr. Schultz, believe me, I tried to tell him—" Javier began.
"Shut up! You're fired. Both of you—got that, Wonky?"
Wonky's jaw dropped, and he started to protest.
The words never came. From down the tunnel came a hideous crash.
Someone in the crowd screamed and someone else began shouting something, but Javier didn't really hear them. Turning, he started off through the crowd, hoping desperately to reach a wall or doorway where he'd be safe. But it was too late; and even as he took his first few steps his body went stiff. Through the vision of an exploding starship that danced before his eyes, he dimly felt the jostling of the crowd pushing him off balance. An instant later, the universe went black.
He woke up—or, more properly, returned to a state of relative consciousness—four or five times in the next few hours, as nearly as he could later piece events together. It was a foggy sort of awareness, distinguished from sleep mainly by the throbbing pain in arms, chest, and head. Occasionally he heard voices, indicating there were others in the room with him. Sometimes all he could hear was groaning.
It was the periods between those times that nearly drove him insane.
Only once before in his life had he ever had even two visions come one right after the other; now, they were coming in strings. Two aircars collide violently just short of a rooftop landing pad, obvious victims of a guidance computer malfunction. One slides over the edge and falls two hundred stories....
An explosive decompression aboard an orbiting space colony. Three are killed instantly, seven others suffocate before help can reach them....
Screams in an unknown language are swallowed up by the roar of an erupting volcano. The rain of ash and flowing lava cut through a jungle village, obliterating it completely....
A fleet of unidentifiable starships fights a short but violent battle with a planetary defense force, destroying it to the last ship....
The starship battle was the worst of the visions, its intrinsic horror stretched agonizingly by its sheer persistence. Again and again Javier was pulled back to the scene, forced to watch as the victors, apparently not satisfied with the deaths they had already caused, proceeded with coldblooded efficiency to burn off the world they had defeated. From space the expanding rings of nuclear flame were clearly visible; at ground level they were the height of redwoods and the brightness of the noonday sun. For once, no one screamed in pain. No one had time.
Finally—finally—the hurricane of death subsided. With an effort, Javier swam his way back to consciousness. The first thing he saw when his eyes opened was Wonky's face.
"Where am I?" he whispered, his throat very dry.
"Hospital," Wonky told him. "Ward two. How you feel?"
"Terrible. You've got to help me get out of here."
"You're not well enough," Wonky protested. "You got kinda trampled when you fainted at the station. You should wait till morning, anyway—it's pretty late."
"I don't care. If it starts up again I'll go crazy. Never mind," he added, seeing Wonky's puzzled expression. "My clothes must be here somewhere. Find them, and then hunt up a doctor. I'll sign any release they want. But I have to get out."
For a long minute Wonky stared at him, brows tight with thought. Then he nodded once, curtly, and began to search among the ward's lockers. He found Javier's clothing, and after being assured that Javier could get into them alone, went in search of a doctor. Javier dressed slowly, his body aching with every movement. A radio was playing softly at the nurses' station at the end of the room, and he paused once to listen as a report of interstellar news came on. The doctor Wonky dragged back with him proved stubborn, but in the end was persuaded to produce the necessary papers, and a few minutes later Javier was out on the street. Supported by Wonky, he headed toward his apartment building. They just made it. —
Javier slept for nearly ten hours; a deep sleep, untroubled by visions. When he awoke he lay quietly, staring at the ceiling and thinking about what he'd seen and heard. After a while, he slept again.
By the time he woke up he had made his decision. He showered, ate the last of the packaged food he had in the room, and wrote a long letter. Then he began packing.
Wonky arrived before he had finished. "Hi, kid, how you feeling?" he asked as Javier offered him the room's only chair.
"Better," Javier said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Thanks for helping me home last night."
Wonky shrugged. "Yeah... look, Mr. Schultz sent me to see you."
"He was going to let me come back, but then changed his mind. Right?"
Wonky seemed taken aback. "How'd you know?"
"I expected it. Word of my vision got around the kitchen, probably, and the people don't want to work with me. Happens all the time."
"It ain't that they don't like you, you know. They're just kinda scared."
"I know." Javier looked at him thoughtfully. "What about you, Wonky?"
"You saved the boss's life. That was a good thing to do. I don't think it's right to fire you just 'cause some of the others are scared. I told him so."
"Thanks for backing me up. Did you get your own job back?"
"Oh, sure. Mr. Schultz doesn't mean it when he fires me. He told me to give you this." He fished a bulky envelope from his pocket and handed it over. "He said it was all he could do."
Inside the envelope, in well-worn bills, was about three hundred dollars. "That was very kind of him," Javier said, surprised by the gift. "Please thank him for me."
Wonky glanced at the travelbags. "You leaving town?"
"Yes. I'm getting as far away from people as I can. Northern Maine, maybe." Thoughts of central Australia flashed briefly through his mind.
"How come?" Javier hesitated. This was not the time nor the place, he told himself. But the secret had been bottled up within him for too long. "Wonky, have you wondered how it is I can get these visions, wondered what it is that causes them?"
"Naw, not really. Mr. Schultz said it's a kinda curse."
"It is indeed. But it's a curse with a very simple basis." He closed his eyes briefly. "Death."
Wonky's eyes narrowed. "I don't get it."
"It's painfully simple. Someone fairly nearby dies, and that event triggers a vision. That's what happened at the station—the train wreck started a trance, and I got trampled. At the hospital, with crash victims and others dying all around me, I got visions' strung together like previews of Armageddon."
He stood up and went to the window. "It was the group trances on Aurora that finally tipped me off," he said, as much to himself as to Wonky. If felt good to finally let it all out. "Always there was one death in the obit list that wasn't connected to the accidents—that was the death that started the whole thing. A few Cassandras would be affected; one, maybe, would be driving a car and would run down a pedestrian. Another death, more trances. With enough Cassandras doing dangerous things it could have gone on forever." He sighed. "I think the old philosophers must have been right. Human life—maybe sentient life in general—is more important to the universe than we like to think these days. Somehow, the two instances of death—the triggering one and the ones in the vision—seem to form a link through time and space, a bridge that we Cassandras can somehow travel. Maybe because death takes the person out of time, so that all deaths are in some way congruent—I don't know. All I know is that it happens. The philosophers can play games with the semantics."
Wonky had been listening silently—probably, Javier thought, not really understanding. But now he spoke up. "Wait a minute. Mr. Schultz and you both said that most of the things you see don't ever happen. So what's this bridge thing you're talking about?"
Javier didn't turn around. He didn't want Wonky to see his face. "Mr. Schultz is wrong, like the rest of us have been. Maybe we didn't want to believe it... but it's the only way this can possibly make sense. You see, just because a vision isn't fulfilled nearby doesn't mean it isn't fulfilled somewhere. We just never—I mean, there are just too many worlds out there that we don't hear much from." He bit his lip. "As I was getting dressed at the hospital I heard a report that had come in from Centauri, saying somebody important had been killed in an aircar crash. They gave enough details that... well, I saw the crash, Wonky, saw it almost a week ago. But if that VIP hadn't been in it, I'd still think the vision hadn't come true."
He turned back to face Wonky. "No, Wonky. Every one of those damnable visions must come true. Maybe some of them haven't, yet. But they will."
He stopped; not necessarily waiting for a response, but simply out of words. "I don't get it all," Wonky said slowly. "But I guess you know what you're talking about. You're a lot smarter than me, anyway." He hesitated, then stood up and held out his hand. "Good luck."
A few minutes later Javier was back on the street, trudging toward the tube with his travelbags. He walked mechanically, only dimly aware of his surroundings, his mind numbed by emotional fatigue. On the way he dropped his letter in a mailbox; Dr. Rayburn would receive it in a day or two.
Wonky hadn't understood, of course. How could he? To know someone had died each time you were awarded the dubious privilege of watching someone else die—it was too far out of his experience. And he probably wouldn't have been able to live with the idea if he had understood it.
For Javier, though, there was no escape, either from the knowledge or its consequences. He could leave the city now, but he knew he'd have to return. Even if Dr. Rayburn believed him, experiments and massive data searches would have to be performed to prove it to the rest of humanity. And that would be only the beginning, because the ultimate goal was still to control the trances and their side effects. More experiments would have to be done, experiments like the ones that had nearly destroyed Melynn Uhland and her friends. It would require more volunteer Cassandras... and Javier knew who the first of those would have to be.
The thought of it was terrifying—his hospital experience multiplied by a hundred. But he had no choice. The truth had to be told; the Cassandras had to learn, at whatever cost, how to use their curse.
Because Earth was going to need all the resources she could muster. Glancing involuntarily at the sky, Javier shivered as he remembered that terrible hospital vision. Somewhere out there, sometime in the future, a war fleet powerful enough and vicious enough to burn off an entire planet was going to win a great victory. If the race that owned that fleet was expanding their own empire into space, they would someday reach the Colonia... perhaps very soon.
And if the cost of developing the Cassandra ability into a weapon against that threat was enhanced public hatred and the loss of a few lives, then so be it. It would, Javier knew, be worth such a price.
Even if one of those lives was his own.
"The Cassandra" was one of those stories that I simply couldn't let go of, no matter how many rejection slips it collected. From 1979 to 1983 it underwent two complete rewrites and quite a bit of incidental fiddling on top of that. Eventually, the persistence paid off.
Why I pushed the thing so hard is a little more difficult to explain. Certainly it's not a particularly upbeat story (and if you've made it this far you've surely noticed my fondness for upbeat stories); in fact, it almost qualifies as a tragedy. And, unlike the case in many of my stories, I would emphatically NOT want to be in the protagonists shoes.
All I can suggest is that it was the story's underlying philosophy that had a grip on me. In an era where mankind too often considers itself to be a meaningless accident of nature, perhaps I needed to remind people that that wasn't necessarily so. We could just as easily be important—even vital—to the universe at large; and until and unless that's proven wrong, I intend to keep on believing it. You can't very well care about people, after all, unless you feel those people are ultimately worth the effort.
I wax overly philosophical. Let's get to the next story.