Read an Excerpt
The Currents of Space
By Asimov, Isaac
Tor Books Copyright © 2009 Asimov, Isaac
All right reserved.
Rik put down his feeder and jumped to his feet. He was trembling so hard he had to lean against the bare milk- white wall.
He shouted, "I remember!"
They looked at him and the gritty mumble of men at lunch died somewhat. Eyes met his out of faces indifferently clean and indifferently shaven, glistening and white in the imperfect wall illumination. The eyes reflected no great interest, merely the reflex attention enforced by any sudden and unexpected cry.
Rik cried again, "I remember my job. I had a job!"
Someone called, "Shoddop!"and someone else yelled, "Siddown!"
The faces turned away, the mumble rose again. Rik stared blankly along the table. He heard the remark, "Crazy Rik,"and a shrug of shoulders. He saw a finger spiral at a man’s temple. It all meant nothing to him. None of it reached his mind.
Slowly he sat down. Again he clutched his feeder, a spoon-like affair, with sharp edges and little tines projecting from the front curve of the bowl, which could therefore with equal clumsiness cut, scoop and impale. It was enough for a mill-worker. He turned it over and stared without seeing at his number on the back of the handle. He didn’t have to see it. He knew it by heart. All the others had registration numbers, just as he had, but theothers had names also. He didn’t. They called him Rik because it meant something like "moron"in the slang of the kyrt mills. And often enough they called him "Crazy Rik."
But perhaps he would be remembering more and more now. This was the first time since he had come to the mill that he had remembered anything at all from before the beginning. If he thought hard! If he thought with all his mind!
All at once he wasn’t hungry; he wasn’t the least hungry. With a sudden gesture, he thrust his feeder into the jellied briquet of meat and vegetables before him, pushed the food away, and buried his eyes in the heels of his palms. His fingers thrust and clutched at his hair and painstakingly he tried to follow his mind into the pitch from which it had extracted a single item—one muddy, undecipherable item.
Then he burst into tears, just as the clanging bell announced the end of his lunch shift.
Valona March fell in beside him when he left the mill that evening. He was scarcely conscious of her at first, at least as an individual. It was only that he heard his footsteps matched. He stopped and looked at her. Her hair was something between blonde and brown. She wore it in two thick plaits that she clamped together with little magnetized green- stoned pins. They were very cheap pins and had a faded look about them. She wore the simple cotton dress which was all that was needed in that mild climate, just as Rik himself needed only an open, sleeveless shirt and cotton slacks.
She said, "I heard something went wrong lunchtime."
She spoke in the sharp, peasant accents one would expect. Rik’s own language was full of flat vowels and had a nasal touch. They laughed at him because of it and imitated his way of speaking, but Valona would tell him that that was only their own ignorance.
Rik mumbled, "Nothing’s wrong, Lona."
She persisted. "I heard you said you remembered something. Is that right, Rik?"
She called him Rik too. There wasn’t anything else to call him. He couldn’t remember his real name. He had tried desperately enough. Valona had tried with him. One day she had obtained a torn city directory somehow and had read all the first names to him. None had seemed more familiar than any other.
He looked her full in the face and said, "I’ll have to quit the mill."
Valona frowned. Her round, broad face with its flat, high cheekbones was troubled. "I don’t think you can. It wouldn’t be right."
"I’ve got to find out more about myself."
Valona licked her lips. "I don’t think you should."
Rik turned away. He knew her concern to be sincere. She had obtained the mill job for him in the first place. He had had no experience with mill machinery. Or perhaps he had, but just didn’t remember. In any case, Lona had insisted that he was too small for manual labor and they had agreed to give him technical training without charge. Before that, in the nightmarish days when he could scarcely make sounds and when he didn’t know what food was for, she had watched him and fed him. She had kept him alive.
He said, "I’ve got to."
"Is it the headaches again, Rik?"
"No. I really remember something. I remember what my job was before——Before!"
He wasn’t sure he wanted to tell her. He looked away. The warm, pleasant sun was at least two hours above the horizon. The monotonous rows of workers’ cubicles that stretched out and round the mills were tiresome to look at, but Rik knew that as soon as they topped the rise the field would lie before them in all the beauty of crimson and gold.
He liked to look at the fields. From the very first the sight had soothed and pleased him. Even before he knew that the colors were crimson and gold, before he knew that there were such things as colors, before he could express his plea sure in anything more than a soft gurgle, the headaches would flicker away faster in the fields. In those days Valona would borrow a diamagnetic scooter and take him out of the village every idle-day. They would skim along, a foot above the road, gliding on the cushioned smoothness of the counter- gravity field, until they were miles and miles away from any human habitation and there would be left only the wind against his face, fragrant with the kyrt blossoms.
They would sit beside the road then, surrounded by color and scent, and between them share a food briquet, while the sun glowed down upon them until it was time to return again.
Rik was stirred by the memory. He said, "Let’s go to the fields, Lona."
"Please. Just outside town."
She fumbled at the thin money pouch she kept between herself and the soft blue leather belt she wore, the only luxury of dress she allowed herself.
Rik caught her arm. "Let’s walk."
They left the highway for the winding, dustless, packed- sand roads half an hour later. There was a heavy silence between them and Valona felt a familiar fear clutching at her. She had no words to express her feelings for him, so she had never tried.
What if he should leave her? He was a little fellow, no taller than herself and weighing somewhat less, in fact. He was still like a helpless child in many ways. But before they had turned his mind off he must have been an educated man. A very important educated man.
Valona had never had any education besides reading and writing and enough trade- school technology to be able to handle mill machinery, but she knew enough to know that all people were not so limited. There was the Townman, of course, whose great knowledge was so helpful to all of them. Occasionally Squires came on inspection tours. She had never seen them close up but once, on a holiday, she had visited the City and seen a group of incredibly gorgeous creatures at a distance. Occasionally the mill-workers were allowed to listen to what educated people sounded like. They spoke differently, more fluently, with longer words and softer tones. Rik talked like that more and more as his memory improved.
She had been frightened at his first words. They came so suddenly after long whimpering over a headache. They were pronounced queerly. When she tried to correct him he wouldn’t change.
Even then she had been afraid that he might remember too much and then leave her. She was only Valona March. They called her Big Lona. She had never married. She never would. A large, big- footed girl with work- reddened hands like herself could never marry. She had never been able to do more than look at the boys with dumb resentment when they ignored her at the idle- day dinner festivals. She was too big to giggle and smirk at them.
She would never have a baby to cuddle and hold. The other girls did, one after the other, and she could only crowd about for a quick glimpse of something red and hairless with screwed-up eyes, fists impotently clenched, gummy mouth——
"It’s your turn next, Lona."
"When will you have a baby, Lona?"
She could only turn away.
But when Rik had come, he was like a baby. He had to be fed and taken care of, brought out into the sun, soothed to sleep when the headaches racked him.
The children would run after her, laughing. They would yell, "Lona’s got a boy friend. Big Lona’s got a crazy boy friend. Lona’s boy friend is a rik."
Later on, when Rik could walk by himself (she had been as proud the day he took his first step as though he were really only one year old, instead of more like thirty- one) and stepped out, unescorted, into the village streets, they had run about him in rings, yelling their laughter and foolish ridicule in order to see a grown man cover his eyes in fear, and cringe, with nothing but whimpers to answer them. Dozens of times she had come charging out of the house, shouting at them, waving her large fists.
Even grown men feared those fists. She had felled her section head with a single wild blow the first day she had brought Rik to work at the mill because of a sniggering indecency concerning them which she overheard. The mill council fined her a week’s pay for that incident, and might have sent her to the City for further trial at the Squire’s court, but for the Townman’s intervention and the plea that there had been provocation.
So she wanted to stop Rik’s remembering. She knew she had nothing to offer him; it was selfish of her to want him to stay mind- blank and helpless forever. It was just that no one had ever before depended upon her so utterly. It was just that she dreaded a return to loneliness.
She said, "Are you sure you remember, Rik?"
They stopped there in the fields, with the sun adding its reddening blaze to all that surrounded them. The mild, scented evening breeze would soon spring up, and the checkerboard irrigation canals were already beginning to purple.
He said, "I can trust my memories as they come back, Lona. You know I can. You didn’t teach me to speak, for instance. I remembered the words myself. Didn’t I? Didn’t I?"
She said reluctantly, "Yes."
"I even remember the times you took me out into the fields before I could speak. I keep remembering new things all the time. Yesterday I remembered that once you caught a kyrt fly for me. You held it closed in your hands and made me put my eye to the space between your thumbs so that I could see it flash purple and orange in the darkness. I laughed and tried to force my hand between yours to get it, so that it flew away and left me crying after all. I didn’t know it was a kyrt fly then, or anything about it, but it’s all very clear to me now. You never told me about that, did you, Lona?"
She shook her head.
"But it did happen, didn’t it? I remember the truth, don’t I?"
"And now I remember something about myself from before. There must have been a before, Lona."
There must have been. She felt the weight on her heart when she thought that. It was a different before, nothing like the now they lived in. It had been on a different world. She knew that because one word he had never remembered was kyrt. She had to teach him the word for the most important object on all the world of Florina.
"What is it you remember?"she asked.
At this, Rik’s excitement seemed suddenly to die. He hung back. "It doesn’t make much sense, Lona. It’s just that I had a job once, and I know what it was. At least, in a way."
"What was it?"
"I analyzed Nothing."
She turned sharply upon him, peering into his eyes. For a moment she put the flat of her hand upon his forehead, until he moved away irritably. She said, "You don’t have a headache again, Rik, have you? You haven’t had one in weeks."
"I’m all right. Don’t you go bothering me."
Her eyes fell, and he added at once, "I don’t mean that you bother me, Lona. It’s just that I feel fine and I don’t want you to worry."
She brightened. "What does ‘analyzed’ mean?"He knew words she didn’t. She felt very humble at the thought of how educated he must once have been.
He thought a moment. "It means—it means ‘to take apart.’ You know, like we would take apart a sorter to find out why the scanning beam was out of alignment."
"Oh. But, Rik, how can anyone have a job not analyzing anything? That’s not a job."
"I didn’t say I didn’t analyze anything. I said I analyzed Nothing. With a capital N."
"Isn’t that the same thing?"It was coming, she thought. She was beginning to sound stupid to him. Soon he would throw her off in disgust.
"No, of course not."He took a deep breath. "I’m afraid I can’t explain though. That’s all I remember about that. But it must have been an important job. That’s the way it feels. I couldn’t have been a criminal."
Valona winced. She should never have told him that. She had told herself it was only for his own protection that she warned him, but now she felt that it had really been to keep him bound tighter to herself.
It was when he had first begun to speak. It was so sudden it had frightened her. She hadn’t even dared speak to the Townman about it. The next idle- day she had withdrawn five credits from her life- hoard—there would never be a man to claim it as dowry, so that it didn’t matter—and taken Rik to a City doctor. She had the name and address on a scrap of paper, but even so it took two frightening hours to find her way to the proper building through the huge pillars that held the Upper City up to the sun.
She had insisted on watching and the doctor had done all sorts of fearful things with strange instruments. When he put Rik’s head between two metal objects and then made it glow like a kyrt fly in the night, she had jumped to her feet and tried to make him stop. He called two men who dragged her out, struggling wildly.
Half an hour afterward the doctor came out to her, tall and frowning. She felt uncomfortable with him because he was a Squire, even though he kept an office down in the Lower City, but his eyes were mild, even kind. He was wiping his hands on a little towel, which he tossed into a wastecan, even though it looked perfectly clean to her.
He said, "Where did you meet this man?"
She had told him the circumstances cautiously, reducing it to the very barest essentials and leaving out all mention of the Townman and the patrollers.
"Then you know nothing about him?"
She shook her head. "Nothing before that."
He said, "This man has been treated with a psychic probe. Do you know what that is?"
At first she had shaken her head again, but then she said in a dry whisper, "Is it what they do to crazy people, Doctor?"
"And to criminals. It is done to change their minds for their own good. It makes their minds healthy, or it changes the parts that make them want to steal and kill. Do you understand?"
She did. She grew brick- red and said, "Rik never stole anything or hurt anybody."
"You call him Rik?"He seemed amused. "Now look here, how do you know what he did before you met him? It’s hard to tell from the condition of his mind now. The probing was thorough and brutal. I can’t say how much of his mind has been permanently removed and how much has been temporarily lost through shock. What I mean is that some of it will come back, like his speaking, as time goes on, but not all of it. He should be kept under observation."
"No, no. He’s got to stay with me. I’ve been taking good care of him, Doctor."
He frowned, and then his voice grew milder. "Well, I’m thinking of you, my girl. Not all the bad may be out of his mind. You wouldn’t want him to hurt you someday."
At that moment a nurse led out Rik. She was making little sounds to quiet him, as one would an infant. Rik put a hand to his head and stared vacantly, until his eyes focused on Valona; then he held out his hands and cried, feebly, "Lona——"
She sprang to him and put his head on her shoulder, holding him tightly. She said to the doctor, "He wouldn’t hurt me, no matter what."
The doctor said thoughtfully, "His case will have to be reported, of course. I don’t know how he escaped from the authorities in the condition he must have been in."
"Does that mean they’ll take him away, Doctor?"
"I’m afraid so."
"Please, Doctor, don’t do that."She wrenched at the handkerchief, in which were the five gleaming pieces of credit- alloy. She said, "You can have it all, Doctor. I’ll take good care of him. He won’t hurt anyone."
The doctor looked at the pieces in his hand. "You’re a mill-worker, aren’t you?"
"How much do they pay you a week?"
"Two point eight credits."
He tossed the coins gently, brought them together in his closed palm with a tinkle of metal, then held them out to her. "Take it, girl. There’s no charge."
She accepted them with wonder. "You’re not going to tell anyone, Doctor?"
But he said, "I’m afraid I have to. It’s the law."
She had driven blindly, heavily, back to the village, clutching Rik to her desperately.
The next week on the hypervideo newscast there had been the news of a doctor dying in a gyro- crash during a short failure in one of the local transit power- beams. The name was familiar and in her room that night she compared it with that on the scrap of paper. It was the same.
She was sad, because he had been a good man. She had received his name once long before from another worker as a Squire doctor who was good to the mill hands and had saved it for emergencies. And when the emergency had come he had been good to her too. Yet her joy drowned the sorrow. He had not had the time to report Rik. At least, no one ever came to the village to inquire.
Later, when Rik’s understanding had grown, she had told him what the doctor had said so that he would stay in the village and be safe.
Rik was shaking her and she left her reveries. He said, "Don’t you hear me? I couldn’t be a criminal if I had an important job."Couldn’t you have done wrong?"she began hesitantly. "Even if you were a big man, you might have. Even Squires——"
"I’m sure I haven’t. But don’t you see that I’ve got to find out so that others can be sure? There’s no other way. I’ve got to leave the mill and village and find out more about myself."
She felt the panic rise. "Rik! That would be dangerous. Why should you? Even if you analyzed Nothing, why is it so important to find out more about it?"
"Because of the other thing I remember."
"What other thing?"
He whispered, "I don’t want to tell you."
"You ought to tell somebody. You might forget again."
He seized her arm. "That’s right. You won’t tell anyone else, will you, Lona? You’ll just be my spare memory in case I forget."Sure, Rik."Rik looked about him. The world was very beautiful. Valona had once told him that there was a huge shining sign in the Upper City, miles above it even, that said: "Of all the Planets in the Galaxy, Florina is the Most Beautiful."
And as he looked about him he could believe it.
He said, "It is a terrible thing to remember, but I always remember correctly, when I do remember. It came this afternoon."Yes?"He was staring at her in horror. "Everybody in the world is going to die. Everybody on Florina."
Excerpted from The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov.Copyright © 1952 renewed 1980 by The Estate of Issac Asimov.Published in May 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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Excerpted from The Currents of Space by Asimov, Isaac Copyright © 2009 by Asimov, Isaac. Excerpted by permission.
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