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The spires were not his own. The colors were not his own. He had a moment of shattering, blinding terror-and then calmness. He took a long breath of cold night air and began the job of working out his bearings.
He seemed to be on some kind of hillside, overgrown with brambles and vines. He was alive-and he still had his gray metal case. Experimentally, he tore the vines away and inched cautiously forward. Stars glittered above. Thank God for that. Familiar stars . . .
He closed his eyes and hung on until his senses came trickling back. Then he pushed painfully down the side of the hill and toward the illuminated spires that lay perhaps a mile ahead, his case clutched in his hand.
Where was he? And why was he here? Had somebody brought him here, dumped him off at this spot for a reason?
The colors of the spires shifted and he began to work out, in a vague fashion, the equation of their pattern. By the time he was halfway he had it down fairly well. For some reason it made him feel better. Here was something he could predict. Get hold of. Above the spires, ships swirled and darted, swarms of them, catching the shifting lights. How beautiful it was.
This scene wasn't his, but it looked nice. And that was something. So this hadn't changed. Reason, beauty, cold winter air late at night. He quickened his pace, stumbled, and then, pushing through trees, came out onto the smooth pavement of a highway.
As he hurried he let his thoughts wander around aimlessly. Bringing back the last fragments of sound and being, the final bits of a world abruptly gone. Wondering, in a detached, objective way, exactly what had happened.
Jim Parsons was on his way to work. It was a bright sunny morning. He had paused a moment to wave to his wife before getting into his car.
"Anything you want from town?" he called.
Mary stood on the front porch, hands in the pockets of her apron. "Nothing I can think of, darling. I'll vid you at the Institute if I remember anything."
In the warm sunlight Mary's hair shone a luminous auburn, a flashing cloud of flame which, this week was the new fashion among the wives. She stood small and slender in her green slacks and close-fitting foilite sweater. He waved to her, grabbed one final vision of his pretty wife, their one-story stucco house, the garden, the flagstone path, the California hills rising up in the distance, and then hopped into the car.
He spun off down the road, allowing the car to operate on the San Francisco guide-beam north. It was safer that way, especially on U.S. 101. And a lot quicker. He didn't mind having his car operated from a hundred miles off. All the other cars racing along the sixteen-lane highway were guide-operated, too, those going his way and those heading in the opposite direction, on the analog south highway to Los Angeles. It made accidents almost impossible, and meant he could enjoy the educational notices which various universities traditionally posted along the route. And, behind the notices, the countryside.
The countryside was fresh and well cared for. Attractive, since President Cantelli had nationalized the soap, tire, and hotel industries. No more ads to ruin the hills and valleys. Wouldn't be long before all industries were in the hands of the ten-man Economics Planning Board, operating under the Westinghouse research schools. Of course, when it came to doctors, that was another thing.
He tapped his instrument case on the seat beside him. Industry was one thing; the professional classes another. Nobody was going to nationalize the doctors, lawyers, painters, musicians. During the last decades the technocratic and professional classes had gradually gained control of society. By 1998, instead of businessmen and politicians it was scientists rationally trained to-
Something picked up the car and hurled it from the road.
Parsons screamed as the car spun dizzily onto the shoulder and careened into the brush and educational signs. The guide has failed. That was his last thought. Interference. Trees, rocks, came looming up, bursting in on him. A shrieking crash of plastic and metal fused together, and his own voice, a chaotic clatter of sound and movement. And then the sickening impact that crumpled up the car like a plasti-carton. All the safety devices within the car-he dimly felt them scrambling into a belated action. Cushioning him, surrounding him, the odor of antifire spray . . .
He was thrown clear, into a rolling void of gray. He remembered spinning slowly, coming to earth like a weightless, drifting particle. Everything was slowed down, a tape track brought almost to a halt. He felt no pain. Nothing at all. An enormous formless mist seemed all around him.
A radiant field. A beam of some kind. The power which had interfered with the guide. He realized that-his last conscious thought. Then darkness descended over him.
He was still gripping his gray instrument case.
Ahead the highway broadened.
Lights flickered around him, geared to his presence. An advancing umbrella of yellow and green dots that showed him the way. The road entered and mixed with an intricate web of other roads, branches that faded into the darkness. He could only guess their directions. At the hub of the complex he halted and examined a sign which immediately came alive, apparently for his benefit. He read the unfamiliar words aloud.
"DIR 30c N; ATR 46c N; BAR 100c S; CRP 205s S; EGL 67c N."
N and S no doubt were north and south. But the rest meant nothing. The C was a unit of measurement. That had changed; the mile was no longer used. The magnetic pole was still used as a reference point, but that did not cheer him much.
Vehicles of some sort were moving along the roads that lifted above and beyond him. Drops of light. Similar to the spires of the city itself, they shifted hues as they altered space relationship with him.
Finally, he gave up on the sign. It told him only what he knew already, nothing more. He had gone ahead. A considerable jump. The language, the mensural system, the whole appearance of society had changed.
He hoisted himself from the lowest road up the steps of a hand-ramp to the next level. Quickly, he swung up to a third and then a fourth. Now he could see the city with ease.
It was really something. Big and beautiful. Without the constellation of industrial outfits ringing it, the chimneys and stacks that had made even San Francisco ugly. It took his breath away. Standing on the ramp in the cold night darkness, the wind rustling around him, the stars overhead, the moving drops of color that were the shifting vehicles, Parsons was overcome with emotion. The sight of the city made his heart ache. He began to walk again, buoyed up with vigor. His spirits were rising. What would he find? What kind of world? Whatever it was, he'd be able to function. The thought drummed triumphantly in his brain: I'm a doctor. A heck of a good doctor. Now, if it were anybody else . . .
A doctor would always be needed. He could master the language-an area in which he had always shown skill-and the social customs. Find a place for himself, survive while he discovered how he had gotten here. Eventually get back to his wife, of course. Yes, he thought, Mary would love this. Possibly reutilize the forces that had brought him here; relocate his family in this city. . . .
Parsons gripped his gray metal case and hurried. And while he was hurrying breathlessly down the incline of the road, a silent drop of color detached itself from the ribbon beneath him, rose, and headed straight for him. Without hesitation, it aimed itself in his direction. He had time only to freeze; the color whooshed toward him-and he realized that it did not intend to miss.
"Stop!" he shouted. His arms came up reflexively; he was waving frantically at the burgeoning color, the thing so close now that it filled his eyes and blinded him.
It passed him, and as the hot wind blew around him, he made out a face which peered at him. Peered in mixed emotions. Amusement-and astonishment!
Parsons had an intuition. Difficult to believe, but he had seen it himself. The driver of the vehicle had been surprised at his reaction to being run down and killed.
Now the vehicle returned, more slowly this time, with the driver hanging his head out to stare at Parsons. The vehicle coasted to a stop beside him, its engine murmuring faintly.
"Hin?" the driver said.
Foolishly, Parsons thought, But I didn't even have my thumb out. Aloud he said, "Why, you tried to run me down." His voice shook.
The driver frowned. In the shifting colors his face seemed first dark blue, then orange; the lights made Parsons shut his eyes. The man behind the wheel was astonishingly young. A youth, hardly more than a boy. The whole thing was dreamlike, this boy had never seen him before trying to run him down, then calmly offering him a ride.
The door of the vehicle slid back. "Hin," the boy repeated, not in a commanding voice but with politeness.
At last, almost as a reflex, Parsons got shakily in. The door slammed shut and the car leaped forward. Parsons was crushed back against the seat by the velocity.
Beside him, the boy said something that Parsons could not understand. His tone suggested that he was still amazed, still puzzled, and wanted to apologize. And the boy continued to glance at Parsons.
It was no game, Parsons realized. This boy really meant to run me down, to kill me. If I hadn't waved my arms-
And as soon as I waved my arms the boy stopped.
The boy thought I wanted to be run down!
Beside him, the boy drove with easy confidence. Now the car had turned toward the city; the boy leaned back and released the controls. His curiosity about Parsons clearly was growing stronger. Turning his seat so that he faced Parsons, he studied him. Reaching up, he snapped on an interior light that made both of them more visible.
And, in the light, Parsons got his first real look at the boy. And what he saw jarred him.
Dark hair, shiny and long. Coffee-colored skin. Flat, wide cheek bones. Almond eyes that glinted liquid in the reflected light. A prominent nose. Roman?
No, Parsons thought. Almost Hittite. And his black hair. . . .
The man was certainly multiracial. The cheek bones suggested Mongolian. The eyes were Mediterranean. The hair possibly Negroid. The skin color, perhaps, had an under-glint of reddish brown. Polynesian?
On the boy's shirt-he wore a dark red, two-piece robe, and slippers-an embroidered herald caught Parson's attention. A stylized eagle.
Eagle. Egl. And the others. Dir was deer. Bar was bear. The rest he couldn't guess. What did this animal nomenclature mean? He started to speak, but the youth cut him off.
"Whur venis a tardus?" he demanded in his not entirely grown-up voice.
Parsons was floored. The language, although unfamiliar, was not alien. It had a bafflingly natural ring; something almost understood, but not quite.
"What?" he asked.
The youth qualified his question. "Ye kleidis novae en sagis novate. Whur iccidi hist?"
Now he began to get the drift. Like the boy's racial cast, the language was a polygot. Evidently based on Latin, and possibly an artificial language, a lingua franca; made up of the most familiar bits possible. Pondering the words, Parsons came to the conclusion that the boy wanted to know why he was out so late and why he dressed so strangely. And why he spoke as he did. But at the moment he did not feel inclined to give answers; he had questions of his own.
"I want to know," he said slowly and carefully, "why you tried to run me down."
Blinking, the boy said haltingly, "Whur ik . . ." His voice trailed off. Obviously, he did not understand Parson's words.
Or was it that the words were understood, but the question was incomprehensible? With a further chill, Parsons thought, maybe it's supposed to be self-evident. Taken for granted. Of course he tried to kill me. Doesn't everybody?
Feeling a profound resurgence of alarm, he settled down to get at the language barrier. I'm going to have to make myself understood, he realized. And right away.
To the boy, he said, "Keep talking."
"Sag?" the boy repeated. "Ik sag yer, ye meinst?"
Parsons nodded. "That's right," he said. Ahead of them, the city came closer and closer. "You've got it." We're making progress, he thought grimly. And he stiffened himself to listen as carefully as possible as the boy, haltingly, prattled on. We're making progress, but I wonder if there's going to be enough time.
A broad span carried the car over a moat which surrounded the city, a purely ornamental moat, from the brief glimpse that Parsons caught of it. More and more cars became visible, moving quite slowly, and now people on foot. He made out the sight of crowds, great masses moving along ramps, entering and leaving the spires, pushing along sidewalks. All the people that he saw seemed young. Like the boy beside him. And they, too, had the dark skin, the flat cheek bones, and the robes. He saw a variety of emblems. Animal, fish, and bird heralds.
Why? Society organized by totem tribes? Or different races? Or was some festival in progress? But they were physically alike, and that made him discard the theory that each emblem represented a different race. An arbitrary division of the population?
All wore their hair long, braided and tied in back, both men and women. The men were considerably larger than the women. They had stern noses and chins. The women hurried along laughing and chattering, bright-eyed, lips luminous and striking, unusually full. But so young-almost children. Merry, laughing boys and girls. At an intersection a hanging light gave off the first full-spectrum white that he had seen in this world, so far; in its stark glare he saw that the lips of both men and women had a black color, not red at all. And it's not the light, he decided. Although it could be a dye. Mary used to show up with those fashionable hair dyes . . .
In this first genuinely revealing light, the boy beside him was staring at him with a new expression. He had halted the car.
"Agh," the boy gasped. And on his face the expression became obvious. Drawing back, he shrank against the far door of the car. "Ye-" He stammered for words, and at last burst out chokingly, and so loudly that several passers-by glanced up, "Ye bist sick!"
Posted December 21, 2010
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Posted October 25, 2008
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