18. Space Wreck
Belem said, “No, we’re not going out. We’re in the transmitter of an abandoned space-ship around Centaurus II. We located it from our laboratory years ago. We know a good many of these out-of-the-way transmitters, useful in cases just like this. I can’t set the controls to take us directly to my headquarters or Paynter could simply read the dials and follow us as he did from the Swan Garden.”
I found I was breathing hard. The Mechandroid said we’d have to hurry. “We transported several cubic yards of air with us but that won’t last long. Here, let me—”
I watched my hands move deftly on the corroded dials.
I had one dizzying moment in which I thought of the terrible deeps of space all around us, the dead ship circling an alien star-group while our last air seeped out around us into the infinities of the dark.
Fortunately for my own sanity, I had very little time in my turbulent hours in this middle future to pause and think. I had been catapulted into a culture so different from my own that my mind could not, I think, have endured the concept of those vast spaces which everyone here took as a commonplace. It was only in the small, unchanging superficialities of the culture that I could conceive bf it at all.
The walls shimmered, blurred—were translucent metal through which I could see a circle of bright green grass and a ring of low-roofed houses whose eaves turned up like Chinese roofs. The only living things in sight were a pigeon, flying low and trailing a red ribbon in its beak, and a dog who ran below, jumping to catch the ribbon now and then. I could hear it barking.
“Hurry,” Belem said and my hands found the dials on the clouded transparency of the wall. These dials were set in rings of colored tile but they worked like any other dials. I turned them, the room blurred ...
I had had no idea there could be such a variety of transmitter-receiver rooms. Few of them had transparent walls, so that I had to guess what lay outside, but the rooms themselves ranged from functional steel boxes to padded lounges. Several times they swam with the perfume of exotic unknowns who must just have stepped out after a trip from—who could begin to guess where?
And once two wilting flowers the size of dinner-plates and colored a deep plushy crimson lay on a glass floor where some traveler had dropped them, stepping out. They went with us through four transitions and we left them at the fifth when Belem said at last, “Here we’ll get out. It’s another concourse. I think we’ll be safe now if we take a long jump to my base laboratory. Open the door.”
Like the other concourse it reminded me vividly, of the Times Square shuttle. Crowds hurried across vast open spaces, vanished into cubicles and poured from other cubicles in an intricate mesh of movement that linked a whole galaxy together.
“See that row of doors with the blue lights over them?” Belem said. “Try to find an empty booth. I think the third from the end—”
A door opened as he indicated—with my own hand—which one he meant and a fat man in a long furred cloak upon which snow lay in still unmelted crystals came bustling importantly out, beating his cloak as he came.
I stepped in, closed the door, avoiding the puddles of melting snow which the fat man had tracked in from some world I couldn’t imagine. Perhaps Earth.
“These rooms would be a fine way to spread disease, wouldn’t they?” I asked Belem as I reached for the dial. “No telling where this snow-water came from, but it’ll go along with us, I suppose, and we’ll track your laboratory with melted water from Neptune or Canopus or—”
“It is most unlikely,” Belem began pedantically in my mind, “that you would find snow—”
“Okay, okay. Forget it.” I had just uncovered a disturbing thought. I was a carrier of disease myself. Had I been sowing the nekronic death on a dozen worlds already, leaving the virus in transmitters for those who came after me to carry still farther abroad?
“There is no way of knowing that yet,” Belem said. “Turn the dials.” I did.
It seemed to me that this time the vibration of the transmission was a little longer and more violent than before. I wondered if we were going an unusually long distance. Then the room steadied again and I pushed open the door.
I expected the laboratory, enormously braced, enmeshed with catwalks and, sparkling far across the room, the bright neural, webbing that meant the dangerous man-machine was in the making. Perhaps Belem’s motionless figure would stand there waiting beside the door.
I looked out into the seething concourse we had just left. The fat man in the snowy cloak was only a dozen paces away in the crowd. We had not stirred from this station.
“Try again,” Belem said in my mind, after what seemed a very long pause, full of strain.
I tried. The room shook and blurred, steadied. I opened the door.
The concourse was till there. This time the fat man had almost vanished in the crowd though I could still see his fur cloak swing out as he dodged to avoid a group of adolescents with bright knapsacks on their shoulders, bound for—what resort world in what distant corner of the galaxy?
“Shut the door,” Belem said. I got a feeling of tight-reined control from his mind superimposed upon mine. He was frightened, trying to keep panic down. “This is very simple,” he said, perhaps as much to himself as to me. “The receiver in our laboratory is no longer working.
“It can mean only one thing—Paynter must have known all along where we were. Or he had access to those who did know. However he found us he must already have sent the weapon ahead.” He didn’t name the weapon, but I caught his mental picture of the golden marble in the glass box.
“All right,” I said. “That lets me out, then. We’re finished.”
“Not at all.” Belem’s thought was sharp. “We must find the nearest receiver to the laboratory that works. It will be somewhere in the city. Then we must walk. There are secret entrances the government can’t possibly have found yet. After all there hasn’t been time for much to happen. But I must get back to my body and you’ll be safer with us than with the government.”
“It looks more to me as if we’d be safe in jail together,” I said.
“Try the dials again,” was all Belem replied.
Someone was knocking impatiently on the door of the cubicle as the walls shimmered again and the long stretches of infinite space drew out between this world and the nameless place of the laboratory. I suppose the particles of my body dispersed along that path and reassembled again. I never did know much about how it worked. But when my head cleared I was in another room, smaller, square, smelling of machine oil. I opened the door.
This was it. I remembered the strange, pale daylight, the bands of thin borealic light across the black sky, the double sun swinging far off and not very bright above the time-ruined city.
But it was a very busy city this time. Men in uniform were hurrying through the streets in low square cars that floated without wheels, quite fast. Groups of them flickered and materialized and groups flickered and were gone at the transmission-centers which were this city’s transportation system. Far off over the rusty roofs a cone of blue-white light, blinding in that dark daylight, seemed to clamp down over something at the city’s edge—I could guess what.
“Hurry,” Belem said in my mind. “Out here, around the next corner and step on the black disc in the pavement. If you move fast I don’t think anyone will recognize you, though a cordon must be out for you by now. They’ll expect us.”
“Me, not us,” I said, dodging through the doorway. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Paynter let me go and then trailed me with the idea I might lead him to you. He’ll have a lot of explaining to do now that I’m missing. But he can’t have guessed you were there—more or less—all the time. Here’s the disc. Now what?”
“Step on it,” Belem said. “The dark half.”
The circle was six feet across, half dark, half palish.
The pale half was unmarked, but the dark half had an arrow inlaid in it which was pointing right.
I stepped gingerly on the arrow.
I was standing on the pale half of a large disc. But not the same one. The buildings were different around me. A carload of soldiers drifted rapidly past toward one of the bigger discs, floated over it, centered and vanished.
“At the next corner,” Belem urged me. “Take the dark half again. Hurry!”
Leap by miraculous leap I traversed the dark clear air of that curious city. And as I went it seemed to me I began to get a glimmer of the decoration which had once made it spectacular in its heyday, something one couldn’t see from a single standpoint but grasped bit by bit as one went through great arcs and vistas of its streets.
One bit at a time showed nothing but each leap through space, each glimpse from a different point, built up a little more of the plan in the memory, so that eventually a strange concept of the art emerged, a step farther than the architecture of my own day, when solids and surfaces were used. Here movement and distance were of equal importance. Like a moving picture, except that it was the city which stood still and the watcher who moved.
Presently Belem halted me. We had come out near a fenced enclosure full of hunks of junked machinery, floating cars that still hovered motionless just off the ground, all their ribs showing, small lifeboats from beached spaceships, odds and ends of jetsam wholly nameless to me.
“Over there, the little ship under the girders,” Belem said. “Make sure nobody’s watching, then climb into it.”
I did, wondering who had last sat in the tattered leather bucket-seat before the instrument panel, what he had seen through the glass, what wrecked liner and whirling stars. Belem interrupted the fancies impatiently. Under his orders I pushed the seat aside and pulled up a trap in the floor. A ladder went down.
Nobody had discovered this passage yet, though I expected to find at any corner that somebody was waiting for me with a paralyzer that puffed rubber lips in and out. At the end I tapped a signal on a metal door and after awhile someone pulled it creaking open.
The gigantically braced laboratory was blue with smoke and bluer with the blinding light of the cone that hung above it, glaring through the broad windows.
Belem’s motionless figure waited where he had left it.