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|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The Sheep Look Up
By John Brunner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.
All rights reserved.
The day shall dawn when never child but may
Go forth upon the sward secure to play.
No cruel wolves shall trespass in their nooks,
Their lore of lions shall come from picture-books.
No aging tree a falling branch shall shed
To strike an unsuspecting infant's head.
From forests shall be tidy copses born
And every desert shall become a lawn.
Lisping their stories with competing zest,
One shall declare, "I come from out the West,
Where Grandpa toiled the fearful sea to take
And pen it tamely to a harmless lake!"
Another shall reply, "My home's the East,
Where, Mama says, dwelt once a savage beast
Whose fangs he oft would bare in horrid rage—
Indeed, I've seen one, safely in a cage!"
Likewise the North, where once was only snow,
The rule of halls and cottages shall know,
The lovely music of a baby's laugh,
The road, the railway and the telegraph,
And eke the South; the oceans round the Pole
Shall be domestic. What a noble goal!
Such dreams unfailingly the brain inspire
And to exploring Englishmen do fire ...
—"Christmas in the New Rome," 1862
By wild animals?
In broad daylight on the Santa Monica freeway? Mad! Mad!
It was the archetype of nightmare: trapped, incapable of moving, with monstrous menacing beasts edging closer. Backed up for better than a mile, three lanes trying to cram into an exit meant for two, reeking and stalking and roaring. For the time being, though, he was more afraid of running than of staying where he was.
Bright fangs repeating the gray gleam of the clouds, a cougar.
Claws innocent of any sheath, a jaguar.
Winding up to strike, a cobra.
Hovering, a falcon. Hungry, a barracuda.
However, when his nerve finally broke and he tried running, it wasn't any of these that got him, but a stingray.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
THIS BEACH NOT SAFE FOR SWIMMING
NOT Drinking Water
UNFIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION
Now Wash Your Hands
(Penalty for noncompliance $50)
Use product once only—maximum 1 hour
NOT IN OUR STARS
The radio said, "You deserve security, Stronghold-style!" Blocking access to the company parking lot on the left of the street was a bus, huge, German, articulated, electric, discharging passengers. Waiting impatiently for it to move on, Philip Mason pricked up his ears. A commercial for a rival corporation?
The unctuous voice went on, backed by non-music from cellos and violas. "You deserve to sleep undisturbed. To go on vacations as long as you can afford, free from worry about the home you've left behind. Don't they say a man's home is his castle—and shouldn't that be true for you?"
No. Not insurance. Some dirty property developer. What the hell was this bus stopped here for, anyhow? It belonged to the City of Los Angeles okay—right color, name painted on the side—but in place of a destination board it just had a stock sign, ON HIRE, and he couldn't see details of its occupants through its grimy windows. But that was hardly surprising since his own windshield was grimy, too. He had been going to hit the horn; instead, he hit the wash-and-wipe stud, and a moment later was glad of the choice he'd made. Now he could discern half a dozen dull-faced kids, three black, two yellow, one white, and the head of a crutch. Oh.
The speech from the radio continued. "What we've done for you is build that castle. Nightly, armed men stand guard at all our gates, the only points of access through our spike-topped walls. Stronghold Estates employ the best-trained staff. Our watchmen are drawn from the police, our sharpshooters are all ex-Marines."
Of whom there's no shortage since they kicked us out of Asia. Ah, the bus signaling a move. Easing forward past its tail and noting from the corner of his eye a placard in its rear window which identified the hiring organization as Earth Community Chest Inc., he flashed his lights at the car next behind, asking permission to cut in front. It was granted, he accelerated—and an instant later had to jam the brakes on again. A cripple was crossing the entrance to the lot, an Asiatic boy in his early teens, most likely Vietnamese, one leg shrunk and doubled up under the hip, his arms widespread to help him keep his balance on a sort of open aluminum cage with numerous straps.
Harold, thank God, isn't that bad.
All the armed gate-guards black. A prickling of sweat at the idea he might have run the boy down under the muzzles of their guns. Yellow means honorary black. It is sweet to have companions in adversity. And, thinking of companions—Oh, shut up!
"There's never any need to fear for your children," mused the radio. "Daily, armored buses collect them at your door, take them to the school of your choice. Never for a second are they out of sight of responsible, affectionate adults."
The boy completed his hirpling journey to where the sidewalk resumed, and Philip was finally able to ease his car forward. A guard recognized the company sticker on his windshield and hit the lift for the red-and-white pole that closed the lot. Sweating worse than ever, because he was horribly late and even though that wasn't his fault he was perfused with abstract guilt which made him feel vaguely that everything today was his fault, from the Baltimore bombings to the communist takeover in Bali, he stared around. Oh, shit. Packed solid. There wasn't one gap he could squeeze into without guidance unless he wasted more precious time in sawing back and forth with inches to spare.
"They will play in air-conditioned recreation halls," the radio promised. "And whatever medical attention they may need is on hand twenty-four hours per day—at low, low contract rates!"
All right for someone earning a hundred thousand a year. For most of us even contract rates are crippling; I should know. Aren't any of those guards going to help me park? Hell, no, all going back to their posts.
Furious, he wound down his window and made violent beckoning gestures. At once the air made him cough and his eyes started to water. He simply wasn't used to these conditions.
"And now a police flash," said the radio.
Maskless, his expression revealing a trace of—what? Surprise? Contempt?—something, anyway, which was a comment on this charley who couldn't even breathe straight air without choking, the nearest guard moved toward him, sighing.
"Rumors that the sun is out at Santa Ynez are without foundation," the radio said. "I'll repeat that." And did, barely audible against the drone of an aircraft invisible over cloud. Philip piled out, clawing a five-dollar bill from his pocket.
"Take care of this thing for me, will you? I'm Mason, Denver area manager. I'm late for a conference with Mr. Chalmers."
He got that much said before he doubled over in another fit of coughing. The acrid air ate at the back of his throat; he could imagine the tissues becoming horny, dense, impermeable. If this job's likely to involve me in frequent trips to LA I'm going to have to buy a filter-mask. And the hell with looking sissy. Saw on the way here it isn't only girls who wear them any more.
The radio mumbled on about extreme congestion affecting all roads northbound.
"Yeah," the guard said, taking the bill and rolling it neatly one-handed into a cylinder, like a joint. "Go right on in. They been expecting you."
He pointed across the lot to where an illuminated sign above a revolving door wished the world a merry Christmas from Angel City Interstate Mutual.
Been expecting? I sure hope that doesn't mean they gave up and went ahead without me!
Feet planted on signs of Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, as the revolving door hush-hushed. It turned stiffly; the airtight seals around it must recently have been renewed. Beyond, a cool marble-walled foyer, also ornamented with zodiacal emblems. Angel City's publicity was geared to the idea of escaping the destiny you'd been born to, and both those who took astrology seriously and those who were sceptical appreciated the semi-poetical quality of the ad copy which resulted.
Here the air was not only purified but delicately perfumed. Waiting on a bench and looking bored, a very pretty light-brown girl in a tight green dress, demurely sleeved, the skirt touching the neat Cuban—correction: Miranda—heels of her black shoes.
But slit to the waist in front. Moreover she was wearing pubic panties, with a tuft of fur at the crotch to suggest hair.
Last night in Vegas. Christ, I must have been out of my mind, knowing I had to sleep well, be in top form for today. But it didn't feel that way at the time. Just ... Oh, God, I wish I knew. Bravado? Craving for variety? Dennie, I swear I love you, I'm not going to throw my precious job away, won't even look at this girl! Chalmers's floor is three, isn't it? Where's the directory? Oh, behind those filtermask dispensers.
(Yet, intermixed, pride in working for this firm whose progressive image was carried clear through to ensuring that its secretaries wore the trendiest of clothes. That dress wasn't orlon or nylon, either; it was wool.)
However, it was impossible not to look. She rose and greeted him with a broad smile.
"You're Philip Mason!" Her voice a trifle hoarse. Comforting to know that other people were affected by the air in LA. If only the huskiness didn't lend such a sexy quality ... "We met last time you were here, though probably you wouldn't remember. I'm Bill Chalmers's aide, Felice."
"Yes, I do remember you." The cough conquered, though a faint itchy sensation remained on his eyelids. The statement wasn't mere politeness, either—he did now recall her, but his last visit had been in summer and she'd been wearing a short dress and a different hairstyle.
"Is there somewhere I could wash up?" he added, displaying his palms to prove he meant wash. They were almost slimy with the airborne nastiness that had eluded the precipitator on his car. It wasn't designed to cope with California.
"Surely! Just along the hallway to the right. I'll wait for you."
The men's room bore the sign of Aquarius, as the women's did the sign of Virgo. Once when he first joined the company he'd raised a laugh clear around a group of his colleagues by suggesting that in the interests of true equality there should be only one door, marked Gemini. Today he wasn't in a joking mood.
Under the locked door of one of the cubicles: feet. Wary because of the incidence of men's-room muggings these days, he relieved himself with one eye fixed on that door. A faint sucking sound reached his ears, then a chinking. Christ, a syringe being filled! Not an addict with an expensive habit who's sneaked in there for privacy? Should I get out my gas gun?
That way lay paranoia. The shoes were elegantly shined, hardly those of an addict who neglected his appearance. Besides, it was over two years since he'd last been mugged. Things were improving. He moved toward the line of washbasins, though he took care to select one whose mirror reflected the occupied cubicle.
Not wanting to leave greasy marks on the light fabric of his pants, he felt cautiously in his pocket for a coin to drop in the water-dispenser. Damnation. The dirty thing had been altered since his last visit. He had nickels and quarters, but the sign said only dimes. Wasn't there even one free one? No.
He was on the point of going back to ask Felice for change when the cubicle door swung open. A dark-clad man emerged, shrugging back into a jacket whose right-hand side pocket hung heavy. His features struck a vague chord of memory. Philip relaxed. Neither an addict nor a stranger. Just a diabetic, maybe, or a hepatic. Looking well on it, either way, from his plump cheeks and ruddy complexion. But who ...?
"Ah! You must be here for this conference of Chalmers's!" Striding forward, the not-stranger made to extend his hand, then canceled the gesture with a chuckle.
"Sorry, better wash up before shaking with you. Halkin out of San Diego, by the way."
Tactful with it, too. "I'm Mason out of Denver. Ah—you don't have a spare dime, do you?"
"Sure! Be my guest."
"Thank you," Philip muttered, and carefully stoppered the drain hole before letting the water run. He had no idea how much a dime bought you but if it was the same amount that had cost a nickel a year and a half ago it was barely enough to soap and rinse with. He was thirty-two, yet today he felt like a gangling teenager, insecure, confused. His skin itched as though it were dusty. The mirror told him it didn't show, and his swept-back brown hair was still tidy, so that was all right, but Halkin was wearing practical clothes, almost black, whereas he himself had put on his newest and smartest gear—by Colorado standards, much influenced of course by the annual influx of the winter-sports jet set—and it was pale blue because Denise said it matched his eyes, and while it could never be crumpled it was already showing grime at collar and cuffs. Memo to self: next time I come to LA ...
The water was terrible, not worth the dime. The soap—at least the company kept cakes of it on the basins, instead of demanding another dime for an impregnated tissue—barely lathered between his palms. When he rinsed his face a trickle ran into his mouth and he tasted sea-salt and chlorine.
"You got held up like me, I guess," Halkin said, turning to dry his hands in the hot-air blower. That was free. "What was it—those filthy Trainites occupying Wilshire?"
Washing his face had been a mistake. There were no towels, paper or otherwise. Philip hadn't thought to check beforehand. There's this big thing about cellulose fibers in the water of the Pacific. I read about it and failed to make the connection. His sense of awkward teenageness worse than ever, he had to twist his head into the stream of warm air, meantime wondering: what do they do for toilet paper—round pebbles, Moslem-style?
Keep up the façade at all costs. "No, my delay was on the Santa Monica freeway."
"Oh, yes. I heard traffic was very heavy today. Some rumor about the sun coming out?"
"It wasn't that Some"—repressing the ridiculous impulse to make sure no one black was in earshot such as Felice or the guards around the parking lot—"crazy spade jumped out of his car in the middle of a jam and tried to run across the other half of the road."
"You don't say. Stoned, was he?"
"I guess he must have been. Oh, thanks"—Halkin courteously holding the door. "Naturally the cars that were still moving in the fast lanes had to brake and swerve and bang, must have been forty of them bumped each other. Missed him by a miracle, not that it did him any good. The traffic coming away from the city was doing fifty-sixty at that point, and when he got across the divide he fell in front of a sports car."
"Good lord." This had brought them level with Felice, who was keeping an elevator for them, so they ushered her inside and Halkin hovered his hand over the floor-selection buttons. "Three, isn't it?"
"No, we're not in Bill's office. We're in the conference room on the seventh."
"Was your car damaged?" Halkin went on.
"No, luckily mine wasn't included in the shunt. But we had to sit there for more than half an hour before they got the road clear ... You said you were held up by Trainites?"
"Yes, on Wilshire." Halkin's professional smile gave way to a scowl. "Lousy dodgers, most of them, I bet! If I'd known I was sweating out my time for their sake ...! You did yours, of course?"
"Yes, of course, in Manila."
"My stint was in 'Nam and Laos."
The car was slowing and they all glanced at the lighted numbers. But this wasn't seven, it was five. The doors parted to reveal a woman with a spotty face who said under her breath, "Ah, shit!" And stepped into the car anyway.
"I'll ride up with you and down again," she added more loudly. "You could wait until doomsday in this filthy building."
Excerpted from The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner. Copyright © 1972 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.. 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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