by Patricia Bow
The only light in the windowless room radiated from the blue-green walls. It gave the sleeping man's face and arms a corpselike look. His hair glinted like tarnished brass.
Magda felt no response when with infinite delicacy she touched a finger to his lips and traced the curve of tawny lashes on the brown cheek. It was a mild, kind, well-worn face. She stood looking down on it for longer than was necessary, for he was clearly oblivious. For a good two hours, nothing would wake him.
She picked up the glass containing the last half-ounce of soporific, then slipped out of the bedroom to the bright blue of the garden corridor. Two steps down into the garden, a dozen brisk steps through the tangle of imported tropical greenery. The sunlight that slashed down through Hagar's thin atmosphere was softened almost to Terran gold by the filtering roof panels, but still it struck fiercely on her shining black hair. Her white shirt lit up like a flare, then the shadow swallowed her on the other side.
Reaching the front of the house, she detoured to set the glass in the cleansing niche of the bar, and swiftly went on to open the front door. She narrowed her eyes against the glare of noon. A black figure swept in on the torrent of light and the door closed, leaving them both blinking away after-images in the dark hall.
"Thanks for waiting." Magda led the way to the leisure room. "A quick drink? You must be thirsty."
"Water, please, Miss Leitch. I usually have sense enough to stay indoors at this hour of the day."
He set his case down on the tile floor and removed his protective gear: hat with face shield and wide back brim, thermal overall with oxygen flask clipped to the belt. Ostentatiously it was a reproof he lifted the flask to his mouth and sucked in a deep breath of oxygen, then wiped a faint sheen of moisture from his forehead. For an old Hagar hand, that sheen was the equivalent of being drenched in sweat.
Magda handed him the glass and reminded him sharply of the fee he was being paid to violate custom and common sense. "It's the only possible time. Everyone's either at work or shut up at home. Mr. Anscombe is napping, as he always does at this time on a rest day."
"Yes. He won't wake."
"Good." He drank deeply. Daniel Tlemba was an odd figure, scrawny arms and legs out of proportion to a barrel chest. The brown, creased, ancient face showed how long he'd lived on Hagar. So long, he was unfit to live anywhere else. This world had nothing to recommend it except its central location in the galactic arm. Hagar had no colonists, only civil servants.
"You asked the Superintendent again about this?" Tlemba pointed to his case.
"Yes. In a roundabout way. He'll still have nothing to do with it."
"What's he afraid of?"
"I don't know." She frowned. "Neither does he, I think. But ten years is such a long time, anything could have happened. Or so you'd imagine."
"It was on Manna, wasn't it? He just vanished. Then he was found again, ten years later, on the next planet."
"On Sere, yes. A brother officer found him when their ship returned to that sector. Tommy didn't recognize the man didn't even know his own name. They took him home and treated him, and he regained his memory of everything before the disappearance."
"But the ten years out..."
"Still a blank."
"Is that why he left the Fleet?"
"That's it. He entered the civil service instead. Said it felt like a step down."
"Hm. Yet he's done well at it brilliantly well, in fact. Most people would say the amnesia's done him no harm. For five years now, he's been contented and successful." Tlemba looked at her. "So why meddle?"
Magda's cheeks went red under their tan. "He's not content! I know: I've seen his face change, thinking of it. That blank spot torments him." She gave him a straight look. "That's the whole point of bringing you here without his knowing. If it turns out that nothing terrible happened, then I'll tell him. And he can fill in that blank spot. But if I find out something that could hurt him..."
She shook her head.
"There's a chance, a small one, that the memory tap will bring on spontaneous recovery, full or partial, when he wakes. And he may experience some recall in dreams during the tap. If you really want to restore his memory, though, you'll need a recording of the images which will cost extra to be used later in therapy."
"No. No recording."
Tlemba smiled at her discomfort. "I must remind you, what we're about to do is strictly against the law: tapping a mind without the subject's consent. We're both taking a big risk. I ask myself if it's worth it."
"It's worth what I'm paying you. And just remember, you're in no position to put the squeeze on. You have more to lose than I do."
"Oh, I don't think so. You could lose him."
Magda shook her head confidently. She had weighed the possibilities a dozen times, and each time decided on optimism. Tommy loved her, and she loved him, and that was why she was about to commit the unforgivable act of invading his mind and dragging that amnesiac period up into the light.
Tommy would forgive. Or else he would never know.
It was that hint of mystery, the shadow on his sunny countenance, that made her uneasily aware of him when they first met, seven months ago. Magda was twenty-two, new to her job, new to the planet. She was still dazed by unavoidable glimpses of the sky and landscape. The dining gallery on the roof of the trade building was cool under its azure dome Terran sky smiling on a Terran garden yet Magda was conscious every minute of Hagar's sun. It pressed upon the outside of the glass like a squid smothering a diving bell.
She turned revolted eyes away from the food on her plate and caught the glance of Thomas Anscombe, late of the Mercantile Space Fleet, current Superintendent of Trade Coordination for this arm of the galaxy. He stopped at her table and she pulled herself together to meet that glance, to be crisp, bright, and friendly.
"Magda Leitch? I'm told you're fitting in well."
"Oh, I like the job. Except..."
"Except you hate the climate. We all did, the first year. You'll get used to it, wait and see." He settled into the seat opposite and smiled at her. "Tell me what it's like, where you come from."
The filtered sunlight gilded his hair and softened the lines about his eyes and mouth, but did nothing to dispel the barely perceptible shadow that clung about him. Or was it more like an electrical charge? Unaccountably wary Magda did not frighten easily she retreated behind the armour of a polite smile.
But before the half-hour was up she had emerged again. There could not possibly be any danger in this man. He met her tentative approach gently, with what she would come to see as the humour of his basic decency. They went on from there.
The mnemograph stood beside the bed on three long legs, with a rod to one side supporting a round hood over a horizontal disk eighteen inches beneath. Extendible wires connected the hood to a fabric band lined with metal: the brain circlet, which for the moment lay on the disk.
Tlemba picked up the circlet, and after a long, careful look at the sleeper, he slipped it over Tommy's head, securing it with a light touch between the eyebrows.
Tommy lay motionless, except for the slow rise and fall of his chest. His face was relaxed and vulnerable, a young boy's face. Magda made a grimace of resolution.
Tlemba stretched a bony finger toward a white dot on the hood. He raised his eyebrows at Magda. She nodded sharply. He touched the white dot.
The eighteen inches of empty space beneath the hood came to life. A creamy blur, then shapes, first vague, then solid. In a field of ripe grain stood a tall, golden-haired man. His uniform was torn at elbow and knee. Gripping a scythe in both hands, he faced a hulking, half-naked savage.
Magda mouthed words under her breath, and never took her eyes from the holographic images. Tiny figures moved across miniature landscapes that grew as she watched, until she became a part of them.
The images wavered and shrank. Then they winked out. The bed rustled. Tlemba hissed in horror, slapped at the hood of the machine and lunged noiselessly to the head of the bed. Magda jerked up out of her chair and for a moment their eyes, identically terrified, met across the stirring body.
Holding his breath, Tlemba eased the circlet off Tommy's head. Wires slithered back into the hood, the hood sank to the disk and flattened, the rod and legs telescoped and folded. Tlemba tucked the square packet of metal under his arm and took a step toward the door.
Tommy groaned, rolled over and abruptly sat up. "Who's that?" Tlemba froze. Then Tommy: "What's that you've got?" His eyes sharpened, his face sprang awake, and Tlemba bolted. They heard his shoes thudding on the tiles in the garden corridor, then an instant's pause (collecting his case and gear) and finally the metallic ching of the door closing.
Tommy looked once at Magda, then studied the curved folds of sheet between his knees while she, waiting, moistened her lips. It was she who gave in. "I'll get coffee."
When she returned, icy glass in hand, she found him in the garden, leaning against a pillar in the shaded arcade. He had put on a linen shift, its white turned to blue and gold by the scattered light. He took the glass from her hand and sipped, and said nothing.
Magda gave in again. "All right, I'll say it if you won't. I'm an interfering bitch. I don't expect you to forgive me."
"That was Tlemba, wasn't it?" Tlemba's profession was well known.
"If you have him charged you'll have to do the same to me, you know."
He waved that away, and for the first time turned to look directly at her. "What did you find?"
His face and voice were smooth, but the ice chattered in his glass.
"You didn't dream? Don't you remember any of it?"
"Well, I... I found nothing to be ashamed of. You see, you needn't have worried!" She put on a smile, hoping to tease a smile from him in turn. Then let it go.
"All right, here it is. You spent those ten years first as a farm labourer, then as a dockhand. You loaded grain on Manna, you unloaded it on Sere. On Sere, you loaded ore and brought it back to Manna. That's all you did for ten years. Nothing wicked or wild or heroic. It's as if only your body was functioning, while your mind was who knows where?" She laughed, hoping he would join in. Anything to fracture that frozen calm.
A moment of stillness, then he hurled his glass at the opposite pillar. Splinters flew, brown liquid streamed down the stone. Magda went rigid.
"You don't expect me to forgive you. That's good, that's wonderful!" He paced like a lion. "You!" He whirled and pointed. "You knew what was best for me, you knew you could just walk in, fix me up, fill in the holes, do whatever you like with my mind my mind! And don't give me that big-eyed look, you just knew I'd forgive you, didn't you? Get out!"
Under the mask of fury, Magda saw a lost look at the back of his eyes. She reached for it. "But all I've told you, it's all right, it should "
"Should what? Relieve my mind? I feel flayed, I feel two inches high. How could you take away " He stopped.
She swallowed and unclenched her hands. Things were clearer now. When she found her voice it was steel-hard.
"Fine. I'll go. But first let me tell you what I really saw." His head pricked up, questioning. She had no need to feign anger, it filled her to bursting.
"I lied," she said, ice-cold. "I wanted to spare you. But you want the truth, so here it is. You're a murderer, Tommy. Yes: a killer and a thief and a rapist. You're a destroyer, just like the barbarians you led, living as they lived, doing what they did "
He made a sound, but didn't try to speak. She took a steadying breath and went on, more quietly.
"I saw you rape a Mannanian girl. You'd just killed her man with a scythe. Then you killed her too. You stole horses, you rode to the mountains. You collected men like yourself, killers, outlaws. I saw you setting fire to a farmhouse. There were people inside. I saw you shoot a boy, a little boy, with your Fleet pistol."
Her voice failed. She stood silent until he moved a hand, jerkily. Then she added, "There was more. Worse. Then, in the end, you were running from soldiers. I saw you lying, nearly frozen, in the hold of a freighter bound for Sere. A dockhand's corpse lay beside you. That was the last."
The garden was half in shadow now. The topmost blooms glowed like phosphorescent seaweed on the surface of a dark sea. Tommy's face was white against the pillar.
"My God. And I wasn't going to forgive you!"
"You would have kept it from me, if I hadn't hurt you. Magda that wasn't really me, was it?"
"It must have been a part of you."
"But you know me!" He pushed away from the pillar and held out his hands. "What happened on Manna that was how I might have been, maybe, if I'd been born in a different place, raised in a different way."
"I know. Here and now, you're a good man. I loved that."
"You won't leave, will you? You'll forget what I said?" His hands fastened on her shoulders. "You'll forgive me?"
"After this, how can I stay?"
He searched her face. She gave nothing back. His hands dropped. Magda walked past him into the bedroom, where she blindly rifled drawers and stuffed anything she found into a carrybag.
"Will you have the rest of my things packed up and sent on?" She headed for the doorway. At the last moment he stood back to let her pass.
"I'll drive you."
"Thanks, but I can walk. I have my gear."
"Magda, nobody walks here in the daytime."
She looked at the cool blue walls as she passed, at the garden, where all the blooms were drowned in shadow now, at the tiles under her feet: anywhere but at his haggard face. At the front of the house she pulled on her overall roughly and jammed on her hat without bothering to fasten the strap. It didn't matter, there was no wind.
"Goodbye, Tommy." She slipped through the opening door before he had time for another word.
Magda walked into an architect's sketch. The common outer wall of the houses, broken at regular intervals by the rectangles of doors, made two white bands bordering a brown one. Four lines ruled on paper, an exercise in perspective. Halfway along, the white bands stopped. The brown one arrowed on to the distant spot where a cluster of chalky cylinders her destination burst skyward from the desert plain.
On either side of the highway lay endless miles of rippled grey streaked with the blazing white of salt. Red and black patches showed where the night wind had swept the rocks bare. Sand and salt sparkled on the road and crunched under Magda's boot soles.
The air shimmered, but there was still no wind. There would be none until sunset. Only Magda moved, and her shadow. Its length marked the time: three hours past noon. Only three hours since she had opened the door to Tlemba and pulled the ground from under her own feet.
A whirring sound began a long way behind and grew swiftly. Magda stepped to the side of the road, but instead of passing, the car slowed down. It crawled along beside her, fizzing quietly.
"Come on, get in. I can't let you walk."
"It's not that far. And I'm dressed for it."
"But I need to talk to you."
"Because... For God's sake, will you stand still?"
She stopped, shrugged, and set down her bag. The car fizzled to a stop. Tommy turned sideways in the driver's seat. He had left off the bubble, and was wearing gear like Magda's. Through his sunshield she found it hard to read his expression, but he seemed to be waiting for some cue. She had no idea what that might be, so she said nothing.
"I'll ask again. Won't you get in?"
"No, thank you."
"All right, then." His voice became brisk. "That first story you told me. You saw how I took it. You guessed how I felt, didn't you? And you lied to give me back my self-respect. You saw I couldn't accept the truth about myself about my ordinariness. And you left because you can't love a man who would fool himself that way. Is that how it was?"
"Look, I've got a way to go, I don't want to keep standing "
"That's one possibility. The other is, the first story was a lie. You were trying to protect me from the knowledge of what I'd done, and when you saw I couldn't accept the lie, you told me the truth. And you left me because of what I'd done on Manna."
"Or," she countered, "the first story was true after all, and I left because I'd found out that there's nothing wild or rakish about you at all, that your mysterious past was a cheat."
"Is that the truth?"
"Then which story is true?"
"Why don't you ask Tlemba?"
"He'll just tell me what he thinks I want to hear."
"Then go to the medic and have another tap done. Have it recorded, this time."
"I could do that," he said slowly. "But if the second story turned out to be true if all that got out "
"You were amnesiac. They couldn't hold you responsible."
"Maybe not, but it could ruin my career."
Magda threw back her head, nearly losing her hat, and shrieked with laughter. She couldn't help herself. Tommy jumped out of the car and shook her until she stopped.
"Irresistible!" she gasped. "You're so excruciatingly pragmatic! Deep down inside you long to be a hell-raiser, a pirate, and yet your career " She began to laugh again, burst into a fit of coughing; controlled it, and unclipped her oxygen flask. The episode had left her breathless.
"And now you'll tell me the truth," Tommy said. "I know you, you're not spiteful."
She clipped the flask back onto her belt, no longer smiling. "You don't care about the truth. You'll believe what you want to believe."
"I have to know!"
"You wonder why I walked out? It was because you were so damn eager to believe the second story. True or false, you didn't care. But why not accept what you are? What's wrong with being responsible, law-abiding, decent "
"And ordinary, and dull! One of the billions!"
"Decency isn't all that ordinary." She shifted her feet uneasily as she watched him, his face dark through the sunshield. She'd been standing in one place long enough that the heat of the pavement was penetrating her boots. There was a rumour that you could cook if you stood in one place too long. But something, some sense that she mustn't turn her back on him, kept her there.
"The way I see it," Tommy said, "we have three choices. We can be saints, devils or ciphers. That's all there is. I can't be a saint, and I refuse to be a cipher."
"Oh, I don't think you need to worry about being just like everybody else."
"I always knew I was different. I could feel it inside. But I couldn't see it in my life." He spoke in the sullen tone of a man who thinks he has been cheated.
Magda took a breath, then said gently, "Most people are all one piece, more or less. One world. You're a string of worlds, a a solar system. And not one of those worlds knows of the others. What happened on Manna... maybe you just crossed a space inside your skull. But you've been on a different planet for five years now, Tommy. You're on a civilized planet. You can forget the other."
"So it all really happened." He stared at her intensely. How blue his eyes were, even through the shield. Then, as if putting the whole thing aside, he turned his head to scan the desert and squint up at the sky. "The road will be empty a while yet. Still a couple of hours before people start driving home. I don't think I have to worry about Tlemba, he has enough sense to keep his mouth shut."
She peered at him, perplexed. The dry air was making her eyes itch. She reached under her sunshield to rub them. "I've got to get on."
"It's a long walk. How about a ride with the devil?" His teeth gleamed.
"That devil's gone, Tommy."
"But what you know about me could wreck my future." He took a step toward her; she took a step back.
"You can't do anything to me, Tommy. Not in this world of your mind. You just couldn't bring yourself to harm me."
His face changed, and changed again, quick as cloud shadows flickering over grass in a world where there were such things as clouds and grass. Then his features settled into a look of mild regret. Magda thought she knew him again. She let out the breath she had been holding. "You see, I was right."
"How could you possibly know what I'm capable of doing," he said, "when I don't know myself?"
He raised a hand and flicked her hat off. Magda fell, struck down by the sun.
Blinded, scalded, shocked nearly senseless, she huddled on the pavement. Blood roared in her ears and beat behind her eyes. Waves of suffocating heat rose to choke her. She hunched closer to the fetal position and wrapped her arms more tightly around her head.
"Tommy." It came out as a mutter, but of course he was long gone. Hat, she thought. But he was thorough, he would have taken it. No way to grope for it, anyway, without letting in the light. No way to reach for her flask, for the same reason. His simple gesture had left her very few straws of survival to grasp at.
Her right knee brushed something that fell over with a plop. The carrybag, set down on the road and forgotten. Clumsily, keeping her head down and covered, she twisted around and struck the bag with her elbow. She braced herself, squeezed her eyelids tight, then plunged her hands into the bag and rooted, while her scalp burned and sweat dripped from her face to her arms, evaporating almost instantly. By their shape she identified a slipper, a hairbrush, a voucher case nothing useful then fabric. She snatched it out and dragged it over her head, pulled it well down her face, and tied the sleeves and the hem together.
The improvised turban was secure enough. After adding more layers she no longer feared blindness, though the sun beat like a hammer on the back of her head. And this, she realized after a moment, told her where the right direction lay.
All I have to do is stay on the road. Easy.
She picked up as many of her belongings as she could find, dumped them into the bag, and slung it over her shoulder. Dizzily, she stood up, felt with her left foot for the place where pavement met sand. Then took one step away from it, and began to walk.
Half an hour later, Magda was putting the odds on Tommy. Her progress was too slow, she was wandering in drunken diagonals all over the highway. She kept stumbling off onto the sand, first on one side, then on the other. The three layers of shirt fabric, all she could find, were a frail protection. Floods of scarlet washed behind her eyelids, her head throbbed and buzzed. Her face was dry, so tight she feared to grimace, in case the skin should split.
She'd heard it said that Hagar's sun could kill an unprotected traveller within ten minutes.
The next time she sank to her knees and reached for her oxygen flask, it was empty. She couldn't recall how many times she'd used it. When it dropped from her hand it bounced twice, the two clangs oddly slow and far apart.
She staggered to her feet. Then fell down again. Thought of getting up, but this was as good a place as any to rest...
To rest is to die, snapped an inner voice, an unfamiliar voice. Get up! Get going!
Magda murmured in wonder, for she'd never heard such a voice before, at least not from inside. She, always so sane and whole, must have sprouted a new self like Tommy! She lay still, half afraid, half amused, pondering this. The new self was a bitch, by the sound of her.
Get up, fool! Move! Move!
Magda dragged herself to her feet, swayed but stayed upright, and staggered on, whipped forward by the voice within.
"You must be cracked, coming out without a hat." The dry voice tickled her ear. At first she thought it was her extra self again, then realized this voice definitely came from outside. "Come in out of this," it said. "No, this way!"
Somebody was having trouble supporting her weight, though she did her best to stand. He grunted and heaved, and Magda crawled into a dark cave on her hands and knees. Somebody crawled in beside her and began pulling at her turban. She resisted frantically.
"Don't worry! You're in a car. The bubble's up."
The folds of cloth peeled off her head. They'd been sodden, but now they were dry as eggshell. Warily, Magda opened her eyes, then shut them again in horror.
"I can't see!"
"Easy! The bubble is on max, that's all. You're not blind."
His dried-apple face, and the car's control panel, took shape out of a bronzy darkness. He turned a dial and the world began to look almost normal. Magda shuddered.
"If you hadn't come back..."
"I had to come back. You forgot to pay me."
"Sorry." Wild laughter frothed inside her. She suppressed it. "You were in such a rush."
"You're telling me. But then I started thinking. I figured a gentleman like Mr. Anscombe might prefer to keep all this under wraps, so to speak. Am I right?"
"Yes. But don't push him." She flashed him a warning look. "Don't even mention it to him. It won't pay."
"Speaking of pay..."
Magda found her bag beside her feet. The voucher case was still there. She counted out seven white chips into Tlemba's palm. He counted them again and stowed them carefully in his own case and pocket.
Then he started the car and drove on toward the administrative centre. The chalky cylinders enlarged with startling speed and soon loomed up on either side.
"How close was I?"
"About ten minutes' walk. Quite a rambler, aren't you, Miss Leitch? Not that anyone in their right mind would try it. Where to?"
"Temporaries? You leaving?"
"As soon as I can get a ticket." She ran her fingers through the crust of her hair. "To any planet that's cool, wet and cloudy."
Tlemba smiled maliciously. "So you lost him."
"I only lost a piece of him," she said. "That's all there ever was."