Cityby Clifford D. Simak
Intelligent canines in a far-future city preserve the legends and lore of their absent human masters Thousands of years have passed since humankind abandoned the city—first for the countryside, then for the stars, and ultimately for oblivion—leaving their most loyal animal companions alone on Earth. Granted the power of speech centuries/b>… See more details below
Intelligent canines in a far-future city preserve the legends and lore of their absent human masters Thousands of years have passed since humankind abandoned the city—first for the countryside, then for the stars, and ultimately for oblivion—leaving their most loyal animal companions alone on Earth. Granted the power of speech centuries earlier by the revered Bruce Webster, the intelligent, pacifist dogs are the last keepers of human history, raising their pups with bedtime stories, passed down through generations, of the lost “websters” who gave them so much but will never return. With the aid of Jenkins, an ageless service robot, the dogs live in a world of harmony and peace. But they now face serious threats from their own and other dimensions, perhaps the most dangerous of all being the reawakened remnants of a warlike race called “Man.” In the Golden Age of Asimov and Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak’s writing blazed as brightly as anyone’s in the science fiction firmament. Winner of the International Fantasy Award, City is a magnificent literary metropolis filled with an astonishing array of interlinked stories and structures—at once dystopian, transcendent, compassionate, and visionary.
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By Clifford D. Simak
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Clifford D. Simak
All rights reserved.
Gramp Stevens sat in a lawn chair, watching the mower at work, feeling the warm, soft sunshine seep into his bones. The mower reached the edge of the lawn, clucked to itself like a contented hen, made a neat turn and trundled down another swath. The bag holding the clippings bulged.
Suddenly the mower stopped and clicked excitedly. A panel in its side snapped open and a cranelike arm reached out. Grasping steel fingers fished around in the grass, came up triumphantly with a stone clutched tightly, dropped the stone into a small container, disappeared back into the panel again. The lawn mower gurgled, purred on again, following its swath.
Gramp grumbled at it with suspicion.
"Some day," he told himself, "that dadburned thing is going to miss a lick and have a nervous breakdown."
He lay back in the chair and stared up at the sun-washed sky. A helicopter skimmed far overhead. From somewhere inside the house a radio came to life and a torturing clash of music poured out. Gramp, hearing it, shivered and hunkered lower in the chair.
Young Charlie was settling down for a twitch session. Dadburn the kid.
The lawn mower chuckled past and Gramp squinted at it maliciously.
"Automatic," he told the sky. "Ever' blasted thing is automatic now. Getting so you just take a machine off in a corner and whisper in its ear and it scurries off to do the job."
His daughter's voice came to him out the window, pitched to carry above the music.
Gramp stirred uneasily. "Yes, Betty."
"Now, father, you see you move when that lawn mower gets to you. Don't try to out-stubborn it. After all, it's only a machine. Last time you just sat there and made it cut around you. I never saw the beat of you."
He didn't answer, letting his head nod a bit, hoping she would think he was asleep and let him be.
"Father," she shrilled, "did you hear me?"
He saw it was no good. "Sure, I heard you," he told her. "I was just fixing to move."
He rose slowly to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane. Might make her feel sorry for the way she treated him when she saw how old and feeble he was getting. He'd have to be careful, though. If she knew he didn't need the cane at all, she'd be finding jobs for him to do and, on the other hand, if he laid it on too thick, she'd be having that fool doctor in to pester him again.
Grumbling, he moved the chair out into that portion of the lawn that had been cut. The mower, rolling past, chortled at him fiendishly.
"Some day," Gramp told it, "I'm going to take a swipe at you and bust a gear or two."
The mower hooted at him and went serenely down the lawn.
From somewhere down the grassy street came a jangling of metal, a stuttered coughing.
Gramp, ready to sit down, straightened up and listened.
The sound came more clearly, the rumbling backfire of a balky engine, the clatter of loose metallic parts.
"An automobile!" yelped Gramp. "An automobile, by cracky!"
He started to gallop for the gate, suddenly remembered that he was feeble and subsided to a rapid hobble.
"Must be that crazy Ole Johnson," he told himself. "He's the only left that's got a car. Just too dadburned stubborn to give it up."
It was Ole.
Gramp reached the gate in time to see the rusty, dilapidated old machine come bumping around the corner, rocking and chugging along the unused street. Steam hissed from the over-heated radiator and a cloud of blue smoke issued from the exhaust, which had lost its muffler five years or more ago.
Ole sat stolidly behind the wheel, squinting his eyes, trying to duck the roughest places, although that was hard to do, for weeds and grass had overrun the streets and it was hard to see what might be underneath them.
Gramp waved his cane.
"Hi, Ole," he shouted.
Ole pulled up, setting the emergency brake. The car gasped, shuddered, coughed, died with a horrible sigh.
"What you burning?" asked Gramp.
"Little bit of everything," said Ole. "Kerosene, some old tractor oil I found out in a barrel, some rubbing alcohol."
Gramp regarded the fugitive machine with forthright admiration. "Them was the days," he said. "Had one myself, used to be able to do a hundred miles an hour."
"Still O.K.," said Ole, "if you could only find the stuff to run them or get the parts to fix them. Up to three, four years ago I used to be able to get enough gasoline, but ain't seen none for a long time now. Quit making it, I guess. No use having gasoline, they tell me, when you have atomic power."
"Sure," said Gramp. "Guess maybe that's right, but you can't smell atomic power. Sweetest thing I know, the smell of burning gasoline. These here helicopters and other gadgets they got took all the romance out of traveling, somehow."
He squinted at the barrels and baskets piled in the back seat.
"Got some vegetables?" he asked.
"Yup," said Ole. "Some sweet corn and early potatoes and a few baskets of tomatoes. Thought maybe I could sell them."
Gramp shook his head. "You won't, Ole. They won't buy them. Folks has got the notion that this new hydroponics stuff is the only garden sass that's fit to eat. Sanitary, they say, and better flavored."
"Wouldn't give a hoot in a tin cup for all they grow in them tanks they got," Ole declared, belligerently. "Don't taste right to me, somehow. Like I tell Martha, food's got to be raised in the soil to have any character."
He reached down to turn over the ignition switch.
"Don't know as it's worth trying to get the stuff to town," he said, "the way they keep the roads. Or the way they don't keep them, rather. Twenty years ago the state highway out there was a strip of good concrete and they kept it patched and plowed it every winter. Did anything, spent any amount of money to keep it open. And now they just forgot about it. The concrete's all broken up and some of it has washed out. Brambles are growing in it. Had to get out and cut away a tree that fell across it one place this morning."
"Ain't it the truth," agreed Gramp.
The car exploded into life, coughing and choking. A cloud of dense blue smoke rolled out from under it. With a jerk it stirred to life and lumbered down the street.
Gramp clumped back to his chair and found it dripping wet. The automatic mower, having finished its cutting job, had rolled out the hose, was sprinkling the lawn.
Muttering venom, Gramp stalked around the corner of the house and sat down on the bench beside the back porch. He didn't like to sit there, but it was the only place he was safe from the hunk of machinery out in front.
For one thing, the view from the bench was slightly depressing, fronting as it did on street after street of vacant, deserted houses and weed-grown, unkempt yards.
It had one advantage, however. From the bench he could pretend he was slightly deaf and not hear the twitch music the radio was blaring out.
A voice called from the front yard.
"Bill! Bill, where be you?"
Gramp twisted around.
"Here I am, Mark. Back of the house. Hiding from that dadburned mower."
Mark Bailey limped around the corner of the house, cigarette threatening to set fire to his bushy whiskers.
"Bit early for the game, ain't you?" asked Gramp.
"Can't play no game today," said Mark.
He hobbled over and sat down beside Gramp on the bench.
"We're leaving," he said.
Gramp whirled on him. "You're leaving!"
"Yeah. Moving out into the country. Lucinda finally talked Herb into it. Never gave him a minute's peace, I guess. Said everyone was moving away to one of them nice country estates and she didn't see no reason why we couldn't."
Gramp gulped. "Where to?"
"Don't rightly know," said Mark. "Ain't been there myself. Up north some place. Up on one of the lakes. Got ten acres of land. Lucinda wanted a hundred, but Herb put down his foot and said ten was enough. After all, one city lot was enough for all these years."
"Betty was pestering Johnny, too," said Gramp, "but he's holding out against her. Says he simply can't do it. Says it wouldn't look right, him the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and all, if he went moving away from the city."
"Folks are crazy," Mark declared. "Plumb crazy."
"That's a fact," Gramp agreed. "Country crazy, that's what they are. Look across there."
He waved his hand at the streets of vacant houses. "Can remember the time when those places were as pretty a bunch of homes as you ever laid your eyes on. Good neighbors, they were. Women ran across from one back door to another to trade recipes. And the men folks would go out to cut the grass and pretty soon the mowers would all be sitting idle and the men would be ganged up, chewing the fat. Friendly people, Mark. But look at it now."
Mark stirred uneasily. "Got to be getting back, Bill. Just sneaked over to let you know we were lighting out. Lucinda's got me packing. She'd be sore if she knew I'd run out."
Gramp rose stiffly and held out his hand. "I'll be seeing you again? You be over for one last game?"
Mark shook his head. "Afraid not, Bill."
They shook hands awkwardly, abashed. "Sure will miss them games," said Mark.
"Me, too," said Gramp. "I won't have nobody once you're gone."
"So long, Bill," said Mark.
"So long," said Gramp.
He stood and watched his friend hobble around the house, felt the cold claw of loneliness reach out and touch him with icy fingers. A terrible loneliness. The loneliness of age — of age and the outdated. Fiercely, Gramp admitted it. He was outdated. He belonged to another age. He had outstripped his time, lived beyond his years.
Eyes misty, he fumbled for the cane that lay against the bench, slowly made his way toward the sagging gate that opened onto the deserted street back of the house.
The years had moved too fast. Years that had brought the family plane and helicopter, leaving the auto to rust in some forgotten place, the unused roads to fall into disrepair. Years that had virtually wiped out the tilling of the soil with the rise of hydroponics. Years that had brought cheap land with the disappearance of the farm as an economic unit, had sent city people scurrying out into the country where each man, for less than the price of a city lot, might own broad acres. Years that had revolutionized the construction of homes to a point where families simply walked away from their old homes to the new ones that could be bought, custom-made, for less than half the price of a prewar structure and could be changed at small cost, to accommodate need of additional space or just a passing whim.
Gramp sniffed. Houses that could be changed each year, just like one would shift around the furniture. What kind of living was that?
He plodded slowly down the dusty path that was all that remained of what a few years before had been a busy residential street. A street of ghosts, Gramp told himself — of furtive, little ghosts that whispered in the night.
Ghosts of playing children, ghosts of upset tricycles and canted coaster wagons. Ghosts of gossiping housewives. Ghosts of shouted greetings. Ghosts of flaming fireplaces and chimneys smoking of a winter night.
Little puffs of dust rose around his feet and whitened the cuffs of his trousers.
There was the old Adams place across the way. Adams had been mighty proud of it, he remembered. Gray field stone front and picture windows. Now the stone was green with creeping moss and the broken windows gaped with ghastly leer. Weeds choked the lawn and blotted out the stoop. An elm tree was pushing its branches against the gable. Gramp could remember the day Adams had planted that elm tree.
For a moment he stood there in the grass-grown street, feet in the dust, both hands clutching the curve of his cane, eyes closed.
Through the fog of years he heard the cry of playing children, the barking of Conrad's yapping pooch from down the street. And there was Adams, stripped to the waist, plying the shovel, scooping out the hole, with the elm tree, roots wrapped in burlap, lying on the lawn.
May, 1946. Forty-four years ago. Just after he and Adams had come home from the war together.
Footsteps padded in the dust and Gramp, startled, opened his eyes.
Before him stood a young man. A man of thirty, perhaps. Maybe a bit less.
"Good morning," said Gramp.
"I hope, said the young man, "that I didn't startle you."
"You saw me standing here," asked Gramp, "like a danged fool, with my eyes shut?"
The young man nodded.
"I was remembering," said Gramp.
"You live around here?"
"Just down the street. The last one in this part of the city."
"Perhaps you can help me then."
"Try me," said Gramp.
The young man stammered. "Well, you see, it's like this. I'm on a sort of ... well, you might call it a sentimental pilgrimage — "
"I understand," said Gramp. "So am I."
"My name is Adams," said the young man. "My grandfather used to live around here somewhere. I wonder — "
"Right over there," said Gramp.
Together they stood and stared at the house.
"It was a nice place once," Gramp told him. "Your granddaddy planted that tree right after he came home from the war. I was with him all through the war and we came home together. That was a day for you ..."
"It's a pity," said young Adams. "A pity ..."
But Gramp didn't seem to hear him. "Your granddaddy?" he asked. "I seem to have lost track of him."
"He's dead," said young Adams. "Quite a number of years ago."
"He was messed up with atomic power," said Gramp.
"That's right," said Adams proudly. "Got into it just as soon as it was released to industry. Right after the Moscow agreement."
"Right after they decided," said Gramp, "they couldn't fight a war."
"That's right," said Adams.
"It's pretty hard to fight a war," said Gramp, "when there's nothing you can aim at."
"You mean the cities," said Adams.
"Sure," said Gramp, "and there's a funny thing about it. Wave all the atom bombs you wanted to and you couldn't scare them out. But give them cheap land and family planes and they scattered just like so many dadburned rabbits."
John J. Webster was striding up the broad stone steps of the city hall when the walking scarecrow carrying a rifle under his arm caught up with him and stopped him.
"Howdy, Mr. Webster," said the scarecrow.
Webster stared, then recognition crinkled his face.
"It's Levi," he said. "How are things going, Levi?"
Levi Lewis grinned with snagged teeth. "Fair to middling. Gardens are coming along and the young rabbits are getting to be good eating."
"You aren't getting mixed up in any of the hell raising that's being laid to the houses?" asked Webster.
"No, sir," declared Levi. "Ain't none of us Squatters mixed up in any wrongdoing. We're law-abiding, God-fearing people, we are. Only reason we're there is we can't make a living no place else. And us living in them places other people up and left ain't harming no one. Police are just blaming us for the thievery and other things that's going on, knowing we can't protect ourselves. They're making us the goats."
"I'm glad to hear that," said Webster. "The chief wants to burn the houses."
"If he tries that," said Levi, "he'll run against something he ain't counting on. They run us off our farms with this tank farming of theirs but they ain't going to run us any farther."
He spat across the steps.
"Wouldn't happen you might have some jingling money on you?" he asked. "I'm fresh out of cartridges and with them rabbits coming up — "
Webster thrust his fingers into a vest pocket, pulled out a half dollar.
Levi grinned. "That's obliging of you, Mr. Webster. I'll bring a mess of squirrels, come fall."
The Squatter touched his hat with two fingers and retreated down the steps, sun glinting on the rifle barrel. Webster turned up the steps again.
The city council session already was in full swing when he walked into the chamber.
Police Chief Jim Maxwell was standing by the table and Mayor Paul Carter was talking.
"Don't you think you may be acting a bit hastily, Jim in urging such a course of action with the houses?"
"No, I don't," declared the chief. "Except for a couple of dozen or so, none of those houses are occupied by their rightful owners, or rather, their original owners. Every one of them belongs to the city now through tax forfeiture. And they are nothing but an eyesore and a menace. They have no value. Not even salvage value. Wood? We don't use wood any more. Plastics are better. Stone? We use steel instead of stone. Not a single one of those houses have any material of marketable value.
Excerpted from City by Clifford D. Simak. Copyright © 1980 Clifford D. Simak. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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