A collection of short stories from the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author who "has the imagination of six ordinary science fiction writers" (George R.R. Martin)—John Varley.
Picnic on Nearside includes nine astonishing stories from an author whose imagination has changed the genre and the way that people envision the future.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
He is the author of Titan, Wizard, and Demon. He has been compared by Asimov to the early Heinlein. He has been accused by others of being too flashy, too deep, too sexy, too adventurous, too “pulpy”, too literary . . .
Accused, in fact, of everything but being dull . . .
Berkley Books by John Varley
PICNIC ON NEARSIDE
(formerly titled THE BARBIE MURDERS)
The Gaean Trilogy by John Varley
Previously published as The Barbie Murders
“Bagatelle,” copyright © 1976 by Universal Publications and Distributing Corporation for Galaxy Magazine, August 1974.
“The Funhouse Effect,” copyright © 1976 by Mercury Press Inc. for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1976.
“The Barbie Murders,” copyright © 1978 by Davis Publications for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, February 1978.
“Equinoctial,” copyright © 1977 by David Gerrold from Ascents of Wonder, published by Popular Library.
“Manikins,” copyright © 1976 by Ultimate Publishing Company for Amazing Science Fiction Story Magazine, January 1976.
“Beatnik Bayou,” copyright © 1980 by John Varley from NEW VOICES III, published by Berkley Publishing Corporation, April 1980.
“Good-bye, Robinson Crusoe,” copyright © 1977 by Davis Publications for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Spring 1977.
“Lollipop and the Tar Baby,” copyright © 1977 by Damon Knight from ORBIT 19, published by Harper & Row, Inc.
“Picnic on Nearside,” copyright © 1974 by Mercury Press Inc. for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1974.
THERE WAS A BOMB on the Leystrasse, level forty-five, right outside the Bagatelle Flower and Gift Shoppe, about a hundred meters down the promenade from Prosperity Plaza.
“I am a bomb,” the bomb said to passersby. “I will explode in four hours, five minutes, and seventeen seconds. I have a force equal to fifty thousand English tons of trinitrololuene.”
A small knot of people gathered to look at it.
“I will go off in four hours, four minutes, and thirty-seven seconds.”
A few people became worried as the bomb talked on. They remembered business elsewhere and hurried away, often toward the tube trains to King City. Eventually, the trains became overcrowded and there was some pushing and shoving.
The bomb was a metal cylinder, a meter high, two meters long, mounted on four steerable wheels. There was an array of four television cameras mounted on top of the cylinder, slowly scanning through ninety degrees. No one could recall how it came to be there. It looked a little like the municipal street-cleaning machines; perhaps no one had noticed it because of that.
“I am rated at fifty kilotons,” the bomb said, with a trace of pride.
The police were called.
* * *
“A nuclear bomb, you say?” Municipal Police Chief Anna-Louise Bach felt sourness in the pit of her stomach and reached for a box of medicated candy. She was overdue for a new stomach, but the rate she went through them on her job coupled with the size of her paycheck had caused her to rely more and more on these stopgap measures. And the cost of cloned transplants was going up.
“It says fifty kilotons,” said the man on the screen. “I don’t see what else it could be. Unless it’s just faking, of course. We’re moving in radiation detectors.”
“You said ‘it says.’ Are you speaking of a note, or phone call, or what?”
“No. It’s talking to us. Seems friendly enough, too, but we haven’t gotten around to asking it to disarm itself. It could be that its friendliness won’t extend that far.”
“No doubt.” She ate another candy. “Call in the bomb squad, of course. Then tell them to do nothing until I arrive, other than look the situation over. I’m going to make a few calls, then I’ll be there. No more than thirty minutes.”
“All right. Will do.”
There was nothing for it but to look for help. No nuclear bomb had ever been used on Luna. Bach had no experience with them, nor did her bomb crew. She brought her computer on line.
* * *
Roger Birkson liked his job. It wasn’t so much the working conditions—which were appalling—but the fringe benefits. He was on call for thirty days, twenty-four hours a day, at a salary that was nearly astronomical. Then he got eleven months paid vacation. He was paid for the entire year whether or not he ever had to exercise his special talents during his thirty days duty. In that way, he was like a firefighter. In a way, he was a firefighter.
He spent his long vacations in Luna. No one had ever asked Birkson why he did so; had they asked, he would not have known. But the reason was a subconscious conviction that one day the entire planet Earth would blow up in one glorious fireball. He didn’t want to be there when it happened.
Birkson’s job was bomb disarming for the geopolitical administrative unit called CommEcon Europe. On a busy shift he might save the lives of twenty million CE Europeans.
Of the thirty-five Terran bomb experts vacationing on Luna at the time of the Leystrasse bomb scare, Birkson happened to be closest to the projected epicenter of the blast. The Central Computer found him twenty-five seconds after Chief Bach rang off from her initial report. He was lining up a putt on the seventeenth green of the Burning Tree underground golf course, a half kilometer from Prosperity Plaza, when his bag of clubs began to ring.
Birkson was wealthy. He employed a human caddy instead of the mechanical sort. The caddy dropped the flag he had been holding and went to answer it. Birkson took a few practice swings, but found that his concentration had been broken. He relaxed, and took the call.
“I need your advice,” Bach said, without preamble. “I’m the Chief of Municipal Police for New Dresden, Anna-Louise Bach. I’ve had a report on a nuclear bomb on the Leystrasse, and I don’t have anyone with your experience in these matters. Could you meet me at the tube station in ten minutes?”
“Are you crazy? I’m shooting for a seventy-five with two holes to go, an easy three-footer on seventeen and facing a par five on the last hole, and you expect me to go chasing after a hoax?”
“Do you know it to be a hoax?” Bach asked, wishing he would say yes.
“Well, no, I just now heard about it, myself. But ninety percent of them are, you know.”
“Fine. I suggest you continue your game. And since you’re so sure, I’m going to have Burning Tree sealed off for the duration of the emergency. I want you right there.”
Birkson considered this.
“About how far away is this ‘Leystrasse’?”
“About six hundred meters. Five levels up from you, and one sector over. Don’t worry. There must be dozens of steel plates between you and the hoax. You just sit tight, all right?”
Birkson said nothing.
“I’ll be at the tube station in ten minutes,” Bach said. “I’ll be in a special capsule. It’ll be the last one for five hours.” She hung up.
Birkson contemplated the wall of the underground enclosure. Then he knelt on the green and lined up his putt. He addressed the ball, tapped it, and heard the satisfying rattle as it sank into the cup.
He looked longingly at the eighteenth tee, then jogged off to the clubhouse.
“I’ll be right back,” he called over his shoulder.
* * *
Bach’s capsule was two minutes late, but she had to wait another minute for Birkson to show up. She fumed, trying not to glance at the timepiece embedded in her wrist.
He got in, still carrying his putter, and their heads were jerked back as the capsule was launched. They moved for only a short distance, then came to a halt. The door didn’t open.
“The system’s probably tied up,” Bach said, squirming. She didn’t like to see the municipal services fail in the company of this Terran.
“Ah,” Birkson said, flashing a grin with an impossible number of square teeth. “A panic evacuation, no doubt. You didn’t have the tube system closed down, I suppose?”
“No,” she said. “I . . . well, I thought there might be a chance to get a large number of people away from the area in case this thing does go off.”
He shook his head, and grinned again. He put this grin after every sentence he spoke, like punctuation.
“You’d better seal off the city. If it’s a hoax, you’re going to have hundreds of dead and injured from the panic. It’s a lost cause trying to evacuate. At most, you might save a few thousand.”
“But . . .”
“Keep them stationary. If it goes off, it’s no use anyway. You’ll lose the whole city. And no one’s going to question your judgment because you’ll be dead. If it doesn’t go off, you’ll be sitting pretty for having prevented a panic. Do it. I know.”
Bach began to really dislike this man right then, but decided to follow his advice. And his thinking did have a certain cold logic. She phoned the station and had the lid clamped on the city. Now the cars in the cross-tube ahead would be cleared, leaving only her priority capsule moving.
They used the few minutes delay while the order was implemented to size each other up. Bach saw a blonde, square-jawed young man in a checkered sweater and gold knickers. He had a friendly face, and that was what puzzled her. There was no trace of worry on his smooth features. His hands were steady, clasped calmly around the steel shaft of his putter. She wouldn’t have called his manner cocky or assured, but he did manage to look cheerful.
She had just realized that he was looking her over, and was wondering what he saw, when he put his hand on her knee. He might as well have slapped her. She was stunned.
“What are you . . . get your hand off me you . . . you groundhog.”
Birkson’s hand had been moving upward. He was apparently unfazed by the insult. He turned in his seat and reached for her hand. His smile was dazzling.
“I just thought that since we’re stalled here with nothing else to do, we might start getting to know each other. No harm in that, is there? I just hate to waste any time, that’s all.”
She wrenched free of his grasp and assumed a defensive posture, feeling trapped in a nightmare. But he relented, having no interest in pursuing the matter when he had been rebuffed.
“All right. We’ll wait. But I’d like to have a drink with you, or maybe dinner. After this thing’s wrapped up, of course.”
“‘This thing . . .’ How can you think of something like that . . .?”
“At a time like this. I know. I’ve heard it. Bombs get me horny, is all. So okay, so I’ll leave you alone.” He grinned again. “But maybe you’ll feel different when this is over.”
For a moment she thought she was going to throw up from a combination of revulsion and fear. Fear of the bomb, not this awful man. Her stomach was twisted into a pretzel, and here he sat, thinking of sex. What was he, anyway?
The capsule lurched again, and they were on their way.
* * *
The deserted Leystrasse made a gleaming frame of stainless steel storefronts and fluorescent ceiling for the improbable pair hurrying from the tube station in the Plaza: Birkson in his anachronistic golf togs, cleats rasping on the polished rock floor, and Bach, half a meter taller than him, thin like a Lunarian. She wore the regulation uniform of the Municipal Police, which was a blue armband and cap with her rank of chief emblazoned on them, a shoulder holster, an equipment belt around her waist from which dangled the shining and lethal-looking tools of her trade, cloth slippers, and a few scraps of clothing in arbitrary places. In the benign environment of Lunar corridors, modesty had died out ages ago.
They reached the cordon which had been established around the bomb, and Bach conferred with the officer in charge. The hall was echoing with off-key music.
“What’s that?” Birkson asked.
Officer Walters, the man to whom Bach had been speaking, looked Birkson over, weighing just how far he had to go in deference to this grinning weirdo. He was obviously the bomb expert Bach had referred to in an earlier call, but he was a Terran, and not a member of the force. Should he be addressed as ‘sir’? He couldn’t decide.
“It’s the bomb. It’s been singing to us for the last five minutes. Ran out of things to say, I guess.”
“Interesting.” Swinging the putter lazily from side to side, he walked to the barrier of painted steel crowd-control sections. He started sliding one of them to the side.
“Hold it . . . ah, sir,” Walters said.
“Wait a minute, Birkson,” Bach confirmed, running to the man and almost grabbing his sleeve. She backed away at the last moment.
“It said no one’s to cross that barrier,” Walters supplied to Bach’s questioning glance. “Says it’ll blow us all to the Farside.”
“What is that damn thing, anyway?” Bach asked, plaintively.
Birkson withdrew from the barrier and took Bach aside with a tactful touch on the arm. He spoke to her with his voice just low enough for Walters to hear.
“It’s a cyborged human connected to a bomb, probably a uranium device,” he said. “I’ve seen the design. It’s just like one that went off in Johannesburg three years ago. I didn’t know they were still making them.”
“I heard about it,” Bach said, feeling cold and alone. “Then you think it’s really a bomb? How do you know it’s a cyborg? Couldn’t it be tape recordings, or a computer?”
Birkson rolled his eyes slightly, and Bach reddened. Damn it, they were reasonable questions. And to her surprise, he could not defend his opinion logically. She wondered what she was stuck with. Was this man really the expert she took him to be, or a plaid-sweatered imposter?
“You can call it a hunch. I’m going to talk to this fellow, and I want you to roll up an industrial X-ray unit on the level below this while I’m doing it. On the level above, photographic film. You get the idea?”
“You want to take a picture of the inside of this thing. Won’t that be dangerous?”
“Yeah. Are your insurance premiums paid up?”
Bach said nothing, but gave the orders. A million questions were spinning through her head, but she didn’t want to make a fool of herself by asking a stupid one. Such as: how much radiation did a big industrial X-ray machine produce when beamed through a rock and steel floor? She had a feeling she wouldn’t like the answer. She sighed, and decided to let Birkson have his head until she felt he couldn’t handle it. He was about the only hope she had.
And he was strolling casually around the perimeter, swinging his goddamn putter behind him, whistling bad harmony with the tune coming from the bomb. What was a career police officer to do? Back him up on the harmonica?
The scanning cameras atop the bomb stopped their back and forth motion. One of them began to track Birkson. He grinned his flashiest, and waved to it. The music stopped.
“I am a fifty kiloton nuclear bomb of the uranium-235 type,” it said. “You must stay behind the perimeter I have caused to be erected here. You must not disobey this order.”
Birkson held up his hands, still grinning, and splayed out his fingers.
“You got me, bud. I won’t bother you. I was just admiring your casing. Pretty nice job, there. It seems a shame to blow it up.”
“Thank you,” the bomb said, cordially. “But that is my purpose. You cannot divert me from it.”
“Never entered my mind. Promise.”
“Very well. You may continue to admire me, if you wish, but from a safe distance. Do not attempt to rush me. All my vital wiring is safely protected, and I have a response time of three milliseconds. I can ignite long before you can reach me, but I do not wish to do so until the alloted time has come.”
Birkson whistled. “That’s pretty fast, brother. Much faster than me, I’m sure. It must be nice, being able to move like that after blundering along all your life with neural speeds.”
“Yes, I find it very gratifying. It was a quite unexpected benefit of becoming a bomb.”
This was more like it, Bach thought. Her dislike of Birkson had not blinded her to the fact that he had been checking out his hunch. And her questions had been answered: no tape array could answer questions like that, and the machine had as much as admitted that it had been a human being at one time.
Birkson completed a circuit, back to where Bach and Walters were standing. He paused, and said in a low voice, “Check out that time.”
“What time did you say you were going to explode?” he yelled.
“In three hours, twenty-one minutes, and eighteen seconds,” the bomb supplied.
“That time,” he whispered. “Get your computers to work on it. See if it’s the anniversary of any political group, or the time something happened that someone might have a grudge about.” He started to turn away, then thought of something. “But most important, check the birth records.”
“May I ask why?”
He seemed to be dreaming, but came back to them. “I’m just feeling this character out. I’ve got a feeling this might be his birthday. Find out who was born at that time—it can’t be too many, down to the second—and try to locate them all. The one you can’t find will be our guy. I’m betting on it.”
“What are you betting? And how do you know for sure it’s a man?”
That look again, and again she blushed. But, damn it, she had to ask questions. Why should he make her feel defensive about it?
“Because he’s chosen a male voice to put over his speakers. I know that’s not conclusive, but you get hunches after a while. As to what I’m betting . . . no, it’s not my life. I’m sure I can get this one. How about dinner tonight if I’m right?” The smile was ingenuous, without the trace of lechery she thought she had seen before. But her stomach was still crawling. She turned away without answering.
For the next twenty minutes, nothing much happened. Birkson continued his slow stroll around the machine, stopping from time to time to shake his head in admiration. The thirty men and women of Chief Bach’s police detail stood around nervously with nothing to do, as far away from the machine as pride would allow. There was no sense in taking cover.
Bach herself was kept busy coordinating the behind-the-scenes maneuvering from a command post that had been set up around the corner, in the Elysian Travel Agency. It had phones and a computer output printer. She sensed the dropping morale among her officers, who could see nothing going on. Had they known that surveying lasers were poking their noses around trees in the Plaza, taking bearings to within a thousandth of a millimeter, they might have felt a little better. And on the floor below, the X-ray had arrived.
Ten minutes later, the output began to chatter. Bach could hear it in the silent, echoing corridor from her position halfway between the travel agency and the bomb. She turned, and met a young officer with the green armband of a rookie. The woman’s hand was ice-cold as she handed Bach the sheet of yellow printout paper. There were three names printed on it, and below that, some dates and events listed.
“This bottom information was from the fourth expansion of the problem,” the officer explained. “Very low probability stuff. The three people were all born either on the second or within a three-second margin of error, in three different years. Everyone else has been contacted.”
“Keep looking for these three, too,” Bach said. As she turned away, she noticed that the young officer was pregnant, about in her fifth month. She thought briefly of sending her away from the scene, but what was the use?
Birkson saw her coming, and broke off his slow circuits of the bomb. He took the paper from her and scanned it. He tore off the bottom part without being told it was low probability, crumpled it, and let it drop to the floor. Scratching his head, he walked slowly back to the bomb.
“Hans?” he called out.
“How did you know my name?” the bomb asked.
“Ah, Hans, my boy, credit us with some sense. You can’t have got into this without knowing that the MuniPol can do very fast investigations. Unless I’ve been underestimating you. Have I?”
“No,” the bomb conceded. “I knew you would find out who I was. But it doesn’t alter the situation.”
“Of course not. But it makes for easier conversation. How has life been treating you, my friend?”
“Terrible,” mourned the man who had become a fifty kiloton nuclear weapon.
* * *
Every morning Hans Leiter rolled out of bed and padded into his cozy water closet. It was not the standard model for residential apartment modules, but a special one he had installed after he moved in. Hans lived alone, and it was the one luxury he allowed himself. In his little palace, he sat in a chair that massaged him into wakefulness, washed him, shaved him, powdered him, cleaned his nails, splashed him with scent, them made love to him with a rubber imitation that was a good facsimile of the real thing. Hans was awkward with women.
He would dress, walk down three hundred meters of corridor, and surrender himself to a pedestrian slideway which took him as far as the Cross-Crisium Tube. There, he allowed himself to be fired like a projectile through a tunnel below the Lunar surface.
Hans worked in the Crisium Heavy Machinery Foundry. His job there was repairing almost anything that broke down. He was good at it; he was much more comfortable with machines than with people.
One day he made a slip and got his leg caught in a massive roller. It was not a serious accident, because the failsafe systems turned off the machine before his body or head could be damaged, but it hurt terribly and completed ruined the leg. It had to be taken off. While he was waiting for the cloned replacement limb to be grown, Hans had been fitted with a prosthetic.
It had been a revelation to him. It worked like a dream, as good as his old leg and perhaps better. It was connected to his severed leg nerve, but was equipped with a threshold cut-off circuit, and one day when he barked his artificial shin he saw that it had caused him no pain. He recalled the way that same injury had felt with his flesh and blood leg, and again he was impressed. He thought, too, of the agony when his leg had been caught in the machine.
When the new leg was ready for transplanting, Hans had elected to retain the prosthetic. It was unusual, but not unprecedented.
From that time on, Hans, who had never been known to his co-workers as talkative or social, withdrew even more from his fellow humans. He would speak only when spoken to. But people had observed him talking to the stamping press, and the water cooler, and the robot sweeper.
At night, it was Hans’ habit to sit on his vibrating bed and watch the holovision until one o’clock. At that time, his kitchen would prepare him a late snack, roll it to him in his bed, and he would retire for the night.
For the last three years Hans had been neglecting to turn the set on before getting into bed. Nevertheless, he continued to sit quietly on the bed staring at the empty screen.
* * *
When she finished reading the personal data printout, Bach was struck once more at the efficiency of the machines in her control. This man was almost a cipher, yet there were nine thousand words in storage concerning his uneventful life, ready to be called up and printed into an excruciatingly boring biography.
“. . . so you came to feel that you were being controlled at every step in your life by machines,” Birkson was saying. He was sitting on one of the barriers, swinging his legs back and forth. Bach joined him and offered the long sheet of printout. He waved it away. She could hardly blame him.
“But it’s true!” the bomb said. “We all are, you know. We’re part of this huge machine that’s called New Dresden. It moves us around like parts on an assembly line, washes us, feeds us, puts us to bed and sings us to sleep.”
“Ah,” Birkson said, agreeably. “Are you a Luddite, Hans?”
“No!” the bomb said in a shocked voice. “Roger, you’ve missed the whole point. I don’t want to destroy the machines. I want to serve them better. I wanted to become a machine, like my new leg. Don’t you see? We’re part of the machine, but we’re the most inefficient part.”
The two talked on, and Bach wiped the sweat from her palms. She couldn’t see where all this was going, unless Birkson seriously hoped to talk Hans Leiter out of what he was going to do in—she glanced at the clock—two hours and forty-three minutes. It was maddening. On the one hand, she recognized the skill he was using in establishing a rapport with the cyborg. They were on a first-name basis, and at least the damn machine cared enough to argue its position. On the other hand, so what? What good was it doing?
Walters approached and whispered into her ear. She nodded, and tapped Birkson on the shoulder.
“They’re ready to take the picture whenever you are,” she said.
He waved her off.
“Don’t bother me,” he said, loudly. “This is getting interesting. So if what you say is true,” he went on to Hans, getting up and pacing intently back and forth, this time inside the line of barriers, “maybe I ought to look into this myself. You really like being cyborged better than being human?”
“Infinitely so,” the bomb said. He sounded enthusiastic. “I need no sleep now, and I no longer have to bother with elimination or eating. I have a tank for nutrients, which are fed into the housing where my brain and central nervous system are located.” He paused. “I tried to eliminate the ups and downs of hormone flow and the emotional reactions that followed,” he confided.
“No dice, huh?”
“No. Something always distracted me. So when I heard of this place where they would cyborg me and get rid of all that, I jumped at the chance.”
Inactivity was making Bach impulsive. She had to say or do something.
“Where did you get the work done, Hans?” she ventured.
The bomb started to say something, but Birkson laughed loudly and slapped Bach hard on the back. “Oh, no, Chief. That’s pretty tricky, right Hans? She’s trying to get you to rat. That’s not done, Chief. There’s a point of honor involved.”
“Who is that?” the bomb asked, suspiciously.
“Let me introduce Chief Anna-Louise Bach, of the New Dresden Police. Ann, meet Hans.”
“Police?” Hans asked, and Bach felt goose-pimples when she detected a note of fright in the voice. What was this maniac trying to do, frightening the guy like that? She was close to pulling Birkson off the case. She held off because she thought she could see a familiar pattern in it, something she could use as a way to participate, even if ignominously. It was the good guy-bad guy routine, one of the oldest police maneuvers in the book.
“Aw, don’t be like that,” Birkson said to Hans. “Not all cops are brutes. Ann here, she’s a nice person. Give her a chance. She’s only doing her job.”
“Oh, I have no objection to police,” the bomb said. “They are necessary to keep the social machine functioning. Law and order is a basic precept of the coming new Mechanical Society. I’m pleased to meet you, Chief Bach. I wish the circumstances didn’t make us enemies.”
“Pleased to meet you, Hans.” She thought carefully before she phrased her next question. She wouldn’t have to take the hardline approach to contrast herself with affable, buddy-buddy Birkson. She needn’t be an antagonist, but it wouldn’t hurt if she asked questions that probed at his motives.
“Tell me, Hans. You say you’re not a Luddite. You say you like machines. Do you know how many machines you’ll destroy if you set yourself off? And even more important, what you’ll do to this social machine you’ve been talking about? You’ll wipe out the whole city.”
The bomb seemed to be groping for words. He hesitated, and Bach felt the first glimmer of hope since this insanity began.
“You don’t understand. You’re speaking from an organic viewpoint. Life is important to you. A machine is not concerned with life. Damage to a machine, even the social machine, is simply something to be repaired. In a way, I hope to set an example. I wanted to become a machine—”
“And the best, the very ultimate machine,” Birkson put in, “is the atomic bomb. It’s the end point of all mechanical thinking.”
“Exactly,” said the bomb, sounding very pleased. It was nice to be understood. “I wanted to be the very best machine I could possibly be, and it had to be this.”
“Beautiful, Hans,” Birkson breathed. “I see what you’re talking about. So if we go on with that line of thought we logically come to the conclusion . . .” and he was off into an exploration of the fine points of the new Mechanistic world view.
Bach was trying to decide which was the crazier of the two, when she was handed another message. She read it, then tried to find a place to break into the conversation. But there was no convenient place. Birkson was more and more animated, almost frothing at the mouth as he discovered points of agreement between the two of them. Bach noticed her officers standing around nervously, following the conversation. It was clear from their expressions that they feared they were being sold out, that when zero hour arrived they would still be here watching intellectual ping-pong. But long before that, she could have a mutiny on her hands. Several of them were fingering their weapons, probably without even knowing it.
She touched Birkson on the sleeve, but he waved her away. Damn it, this was too much. She grabbed him and nearly pulled him from his feet, swung him around until her mouth was close to his ear and growled.
“Listen to me, you idiot. they’re going to take the picture. You’ll have to stand back some. It’s better if we’re all shielded.”
“Leave me alone,” he shot back, and pulled from her grasp. But he was still smiling. “This is just getting interesting,” he said, in a normal tone of voice.
Birkson came near to dying in that moment. Three guns were trained on him from the circle of officers, awaiting only the order to fire. They didn’t like seeing their Chief treated that way.
Bach herself was damn near to giving the order. The only thing that stayed her hand was the knowledge that with Birkson dead, the machine might go off ahead of schedule. The only thing to do now was to get him out of the way and go on as best she could, knowing that she was doomed to failure. No one could say she hadn’t given the expert a chance.
“But what I was wondering about,” Birkson was saying, “was why today? What happened today? Is this the day Cyrus McCormick invented the combine harvester, or something?”
“It’s my birthday,” Hans said, somewhat shyly.
“Your birthday?” Birkson managed to look totally amazed to learn what he already knew. “Your birthday. That’s great, Hans. Many happy returns of the day, my friend.” He turned and took in all of the officers with an expansive sweep of his hands. “Let’s sing, people. Come on, it’s his birthday, for heaven’s sake. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Hans . . .”
He bellowed, he was off-key, he swept his hands in grand circles with no sense of rhythm. But so infectious was his mania that several of the officers found themselves joining in. He ran around the circle, pulling the words out of them with great scooping motions of his hands.
Bach bit down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep herself steady. She had been singing, too. The scene was so ridiculous, so blackly improbable . . .
She was not the only one who was struck the same way. One of her officers, a brave man who she knew personally to have shown courage under fire, fell on his face in a dead faint. A woman officer covered her face with her hands and fled down the corridor, making helpless coughing sounds. She found an alcove and vomited.
And still Birkson capered. Bach had her gun halfway out of the shoulder holster, when he shouted.
“What’s a birthday without a party?” he asked. “Let’s have a big party.” He looked around, fixed on the flower shop. He started for it, and as he passed Bach he whispered, “Take the picture now.”
It galvanized her. She desperately wanted to believe he knew what he was doing, and just at the moment when his madness seemed total he had shown her the method. A distraction. Please, let it be a distraction. She turned and gave the prearranged signal to the officer standing at the edge of Prosperity Plaza.
She turned back in time to see Birkson smash in the window of the flower shop with his putter. It made a deafening crash.
“Goodness,” said Hans, who sounded truly shocked. “Did you have to do that? That’s private property.”
“What does it matter?” Birkson yelled. “Hell, man, you’re going to do much worse real soon. I’m just getting things started.” He reached in and pulled out an armload of flowers, signaling to others to give him a hand. The police didn’t like it, but soon were looting the shop and building a huge wreath just outside the line of barriers.
“I guess you’re right,” said Hans, a little breathlessly. A taste of violence had excited him, whetted his appetite for more to come. “But you startled me. I felt a real thrill, like I haven’t felt since I was human.”
“Then let’s do it some more.” And Birkson ran up and down one side of the street, breaking out every window he could reach. He picked up small articles he found inside the shops and threw them. Some of them shattered when they hit.
He finally stopped. Leystrasse had been transformed. No longer the scrubbed and air-conditioned Lunar environment, it had become as shattered, as chaotic and uncertain as the tension-filled emotional atmosphere it contained. Bach shuddered and swallowed the rising taste of bile. It was a precursor of things to come, she was sure. It hit her deeply to see the staid and respectable Leystrasse ravaged.
“A cake,” Birkson said. “We have to have a cake. Hold on a minute, I’ll be right back.” He strode quickly toward Bach, took her elbow and turned her, pulled her insistently away with him.
“You have to get those officers away from here,” he said, conversationally. “They’re tense. They could explode at any minute. In fact,” and he favored her with his imbecile grin, “they’re probably more dangerous right now than the bomb.”
“You mean you think it’s a fake?”
“No. It’s for real. I know the psychological pattern. After this much trouble, he won’t want to be a dud. Other types, they’re in it for the attention and they’d just as soon fake it. Not Hans. But what I mean is, I have him. I can get him. But I can’t count on your officers. Pull them back and leave only two or three of your most trusted people.”
“All right.” She had decided again, more from a sense of helpless futility than anything else, to trust him. He had pulled a neat diversion with the flower shop and the X-ray.
“We may have him already,” he went on, as they reached the end of the street and turned the corner. “Often, the X-ray is enough. It cooks some of the circuitry and makes it unreliable. I’d hope to kill him outright, but he’s shielded. Oh, he’s probably got a lethal dosage, but it’d take him days to die. That doesn’t do us any good. And if his circuitry is knocked out, the only way to find out is to wait. We have to do better than that. Here’s what I want you to do.”
He stopped abruptly and relaxed, leaning against the wall and gazing out over the trees and artificial sunlight of the Plaza. Bach could hear songbirds. They had always made her feel good before. Now all she could think of was incinerated corpses. Birkson ticked off points on his fingers.
She listened to him carefully. Some of it was strange, but no worse than she had already witnessed. And he really did have a plan. He really did. The sense of relief was so tremendous that it threatened to create a mood of euphoria in her, one not yet justified by the circumstances. She nodded curtly to each of his suggestions, then again to the officer who stood beside her, confirming what Birkson had said and turning it into orders. The young man rushed off to carry them out and Birkson started to return to the bomb. Bach grabbed him.
“Why wouldn’t you let Hans answer my question about who did the surgical work on him? Was that part of your plan?” The question was half belligerant.
“Oh. Yeah, it was, in a way. I just grabbed the opportunity to make him feel closer to me. But it wouldn’t have done you any good. He’ll have a block against telling that, for sure. It could even be set to explode the bomb if he tries to answer that question. Hans is a maniac, but don’t underestimate the people who helped him get where he is now. They’ll be protected.”
“Who are they?”
Birkson shrugged. It was such a casual, uncaring gesture that Bach was annoyed again.
“I have no idea. I’m not political, Ann. I don’t know the Antiabortion Movement from the Freedom for Mauretania League. They build ’em, I take ’em apart. It’s as simple as that. Your job is to find out how it happened. I guess you ought to get started on that.”
“We already have,” she conceded. “I just thought that . . . well, coming from Earth, where this sort of thing happens all the time, that you might know . . . damn it, Birkson. Why? Why is this happening?”
He laughed, while Bach turned red and went into a slow boil. Any of her officers, seeing her expression, would have headed for the nearest blast shelter. But Birkson laughed on. Didn’t he give a damn about anything?
“Sorry,” he forced out. “I’ve heard that question before, from other police chiefs. It’s a good question.” He waited, a half-smile on his face. When she didn’t say anything, he went on.
“You don’t have the right perspective on this, Ann.”
“That’s Chief Bach to you, damn you.”
“Okay,” he said, easily. “What you don’t see is that this thing is no different from a hand grenade tossed into a crowd, or a bomb sent through the mail. It’s a form of communication. It’s just that today, with so many people, you have to shout a little louder to get any attention.”
“But . . . who? They haven’t even identified themselves. You’re saying that Hans is a tool of these people. He’s been wired into the bomb, with his own motives for exploding. Obviously he didn’t have the resources to do this himself, I can see that.”
“Oh, you’ll hear from them. I don’t think they expect him to be successful. He’s a warning. If they were really serious they could find the sort of person they want, one who’s politically committed and will die for the cause. Of course, they don’t care if the bomb goes off; they’ll be pleasantly surprised if it does. Then they can stand up and pound their chests for a while. They’ll be famous.”
“But where did they get the uranium? The security is . . .”
For the first time, Birkson showed a trace of annoyance.
“Don’t be silly. The path leading to today was irrevocably set in 1945. There was never any way to avoid it. The presence of a tool implies that it will be used. You can try your best to keep it in the hands of what you think of as responsible people, but it’ll never work. And it’s no different, that’s what I’m saying. This bomb is just another weapon. It’s a cherry bomb in an anthill. It’s gonna cause one hill of ants a hell of a lot of trouble, but it’s no threat to the race of ants.”
Bach could not see it that way. She tried, but it was still a nightmare of entirely new proportions to her. How could he equate the killing of millions of people with a random act of violence where three or four might be hurt? She was familiar with that. Bombs went off every day in her city, as in every human city. People were always dissatisfied.
“I could walk down . . . no, it’s up here, isn’t it?” Birkson mused for a moment on cultural differences. “Anyway, give me enough money and I’ll bet I could go up to your slum neighborhoods right this minute and buy you as many kilos of uranium or plutonium as you want. Which is something you ought to be doing, by the way. Anything can be bought. Anything. For the right price, you could have bought weapons-grade material on the black market as early as 1960 or so. It would have been very expensive; there wasn’t much of it. You’d have had to buy a lot of people. But now . . . well, you think it out.” He stopped, and seemed embarrassed by his outburst.
“I’ve read a little about this,” he apologized.
She did think it out as she followed him back to the cordon. What he said was true. When controlled fusion proved too costly for wide-scale use, humanity had opted for fast breeder reactors. There had been no other choice. And from that moment, nuclear bombs in the hands of terrorists had been the price humanity accepted. And the price they would continue to pay.
“I wanted to ask you one more question,” she said. He stopped and turned to face her. His smile was dazzling.
“Ask away. But are you going to take me up on that bet?”
She was momentarily unsure of what he meant.
“Oh. Are you saying you’d help us locate the underground uranium ring? I’d be grateful . . .”
“No, no. Oh, I’ll help you. I’m sure I can make a contact. I used to do that before I got into this game. What I meant was, are you going to bet I can’t find some? We could bet . . . say, a dinner together as soon as I’ve found it. Time limit of seven days. How about it?”
She thought she had only two alternatives: walk away from him, or kill him. But she found a third.
“You’re a betting man. I guess I can see why. But that’s what I wanted to ask you. How can you stay so calm? Why doesn’t this get to you like it does to me and my people? You can’t tell me it’s simply that you’re used to it.”
He thought about it. “And why not? You can get used to anything, you know. Now what about that bet?”
“If you don’t stop talking about that,” she said, quietly, “I’m going to break your arm.”
“All right.” He said nothing further, and she asked no further questions.
* * *
The fireball grew in milliseconds into an inferno that could scarcely be described in terms comprehensible to humans. Everything in a half-kilometer radius simply vanished into super-heated gases and plasma: buttresses, plate-glass windows, floors and ceilings, pipes, wires, tanks, machines, gewgaws and trinkets by the million, books, tapes, apartments, furniture, household pets, men, women, and children. They were the lucky ones. The force of the expanding blast compressed two hundred levels below it like a giant sitting on a Dagwood sandwich, making holes through plate steel turned to putty by the heat as easily as a punch press through tinfoil. Upwards, the surface bulged into the soundless Lunar night and split to reveal a white hell beneath. Chunks flew away, chunks as large as city sectors, before the center collapsed back on itself to leave a crater whose walls were a maze of compartments and ant-tunnels that dripped and flowed like warm gelatin. No trace was left of human bodies within two kilometers of the explosion. They had died after only the shortest period of suffering, their bodies consumed or spread into an invisible layer of organic film by the combination of heat and pressure that passed through walls, entered rooms where the doors were firmly shut. Further away, the sound was enough to congeal the bodies of a million people before the heat roasted them, the blast stripped flesh from bones to leave shrunken stick figures. Still the effects attenuated as the blast was channeled into corridors that were structurally strong enough to remain intact, and that very strength was the downfall of the inhabitants of the maze. Twenty kilometers from the epicenter, pressure doors popped through steel flanges like squeezed watermelon seeds.
What was left was five million burnt, blasted corpses, and ten million injured so hideously that they would die in hours or days. But Bach had been miraculously thrown clear by some freak of the explosion. She hurtled through the void with fifteen million ghosts following her, and each carried a birthday cake. They were singing. She joined in.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday . . .”
“Huh?” She felt a cold chill pass over her body. For a moment she could only stare down into the face of Roger Birkson.
“You all right now?” he asked. He looked concerned.
“I’m . . . what happened?”
He patted her on both arms, then shook her heartily.
“Nothing. You drifted off for a moment.” He narrowed his eyes. “I think you were daydreaming. I want to be diplomatic about this . . . ah, what I mean . . . I’ve seen it happen before. I think you were trying to get away from us.”
She rubbed her hands over her face.
“I think I was. But I sure went in the wrong direction. I’m all right now.” She could remember it now, and knew she had not passed out or become totally detached from what was going on. She had watched it all. Her memories of the explosion, so raw and real a moment before, were already the stuff of nightmares.
Too bad she hadn’t come awake into a better world. It was so damn unfair. That was the reward at the end of a nightmare, wasn’t it? You woke up to find everything was all right.
Instead, here was a long line of uniformed officers, bearing birthday cakes to a fifty kiloton atomic bomb.
* * *
Birkson had ordered the lights turned off in the Leystrasse. When his order had not been carried out, he broke out the lights with his putter. Soon, he had some of the officers helping him.
Now the beautiful Leystrasse, the pride of New Dresden, was a flickering tunnel through hell. The light of a thousand tiny birthday candles on five hundred cakes turned everything red-orange and made people into shadowed demons. Officers kept arriving with hastily wrapped presents, flowers, balloons. Hans, the little man who was now nothing but a brain and nerve network floating in a lead container; Hans, the cause of all this, the birthday boy himself, watched it all in unconcealed delight from his battery of roving television cameras. He sang loudly.
“I am a bomb! I am a bomb!” he yelled. He had never had so much fun.
Bach and Birkson retreated from the scene into the darkened recess of the Bagatelle Flower Shoppe. There, a stereo viewing tank had been set up.
The X-ray picture had been taken with a moving plate technique that allowed a computer to generate a three dimensional model. They leaned over the tank now and studied it. They had been joined by Sergeant McCoy, Bach’s resident bomb expert, and another man from the Lunar Radiation Laboratory.
“This is Hans,” said Birkson, moving a red dot in the tank by means of a dial on the side. It flicked over and around a vague gray shape that trailed dozens of wires. Bach wondered again at the pressures that would allow a man to like having his body stripped from him. There was nothing in that lead flask but the core of the man, the brain and central nervous system.
“Here’s the body of the bomb. The two sub-critical masses. The H.E. charge, the timer, the arming barrier, which is now withdrawn. It’s an old design, ladies and gentlemen. Old, but reliable. As basic as the bow and arrow. It’s very much like the first one dropped on the Nippon Empire at Hiroshima.”
“You’re sure it’ll go off, then?” Bach put in.
“Sure as taxes. Hell, a kid could build one of these in the bathroom, given only the uranium and some shielding equipment. Now let me see.” He pored over the phantom in the tank, tracing out wiring paths with the experts. They debated possibilities, lines of attack, drawbacks. At last they seemed to reach a consensus.
“As I see it, we have only one option,” Birkson said. “We have to go for his volitional control over the bomb. I’m pretty sure we’ve isolated the main cable that goes from him to the detonator. Knock that out, and he can’t do a thing. We can pry that tin can open by conventional means and disarm that way. McCoy?”
“I agree,” said McCoy. “We’d have a full hour, and I’m sure we can get in there with no trouble. When they cyborged this one, they put all their cards on the human operator. They didn’t bother with entry blocks, since Hans could presumably blow it up before we could get close enough to do anything. With his control out, we only have to open it up with a torch and drop the damper into place.
The LRL man nodded his agreement. “Though I’m not quite as convinced as Mr. Birkson that he’s got the right cable in mind for what he wants to do. If we had more time . . .”
“We’ve wasted enough time already,” Bach said, decisively. She had swung rapidly from near terror of Roger Birkson to total trust. It was her only defense. She knew she could do nothing at all about the bomb, and had to trust someone.
“Then we go for it. Is your crew in place? Do they know what to do? And above all, are they good? Really good? There won’t be a second chance.”
“Yes, yes, and yes,” Bach said. “They’ll do it. We know how to cut rock on Luna.”
“Then give them the coordinates, and go.” Birkson seemed to relax a bit. Bach saw that he had been under some form of tension, even if it was only excitement at the challenge. He had just given his last order. It was no longer in his hands. His fatalistic gambler’s instinct came into play and the restless, churning energy he had brought to the enterprise vanished. There was nothing to do about it but wait. Birkson was good at waiting. He had lived through twenty-one of these final countdowns.
He faced Bach and started to say something to her, then thought better of it. She saw doubt in his face for the first time, and it made her skin crawl. Damn it, she had thought he was sure.
“Chief,” he said, quietly, “I want to apologize for the way I treated you these last few hours. It’s not something I can control when I’m on the job. I . . .”
This time it was Bach’s turn to laugh, and the release of tension it brought with it was almost orgasmic. She felt like she hadn’t laughed for a million years.
“Forgive me,” she said. “I saw you were worried, and thought it was about the bomb. It was just such a relief.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, dismissing it. “No point in worrying now. Either your people hit it or they don’t. We won’t know if they don’t. What I was saying, it just sort of comes over me. Honestly. I get horny, I get manic, I totally forget about other people except as objects to be manipulated. So I just wanted to say I like you. I’m glad you put up with me. And I won’t pester you anymore.”
She came over and put her hand on his shoulder.
“Can I call you Roger? Thanks. Listen, if this thing works, I’ll have dinner with you. I’ll give you the key to the city, a ticker tape parade, and a huge bonus for a consultant fee . . . and my eternal friendship. We’ve been tense, okay? Let’s forget about these last few hours.”
“All right.” His smile was quite different this time.
Outside, it happened very quickly. The crew on the laser drill were positioned beneath the bomb, working from ranging reports and calculations to aim their brute at precisely the right spot.
The beam took less than a tenth of a second to eat through the layer of rock in the ceiling and emerge in the air above the Leystrasse. It ate through the metal sheath of the bomb’s underside, the critical wire, the other side of the bomb, and part of the ceiling like they weren’t even there. It had penetrated into the level above before it could be shut off.
There was a shower of sparks, a quick sliding sound, then a muffled thud. The whole structure of the bomb trembled, and smoke screeched from the two drilled holes in the top and bottom. Bach didn’t understand it, but could see that she was alive and assumed it was over. She turned to Birkson, and the shock of seeing him nearly stopped her heart.
His face was a gray mask, drained of blood. His mouth hung open. He swayed, and almost fell over. Bach caught him and eased him to the floor.
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