home   |   -   |   A-Z   |  


Chapter 4

The bullet plowed slowly out of the cloud of expanding gas and drifted about two feet toward Bill before the humming gravity field slowed it to a stop. The simple-minded cycling circuit translated the bullet's speed as mass and assumed that another body had entered the gravchute and assigned it a position.

Deathwish's fall slowed until he was fifteen feet behind the bullet, while the other MP also assumed the same relative position behind him. The gap between Bill and his pursuers was now twice as wide, and he took advantage of this and ducked out of the exit at the next level. An open elevator beckoned to him coyly and he was into it and had the door closed before the wildly cursing Deathwish could emerge from the shaft.

After this, escape was simply a matter of muddling his trail. He used different means of transportation at random, and all the time kept fleeing to lower levels as though seeking to escape like a mole by burrowing deep into the ground. It was exhaustion that stopped him finally, dropping him in his tracks, slumped against a wall and panting like a triceratops in heat. Gradually he became aware of his surroundings and realized that he had come lower than he had ever been before. The corridors were gloomier and older, made of steel plates riveted together. Massive pillars, some a hundred feet or more in diameter, broke the smoothness of the walls, great structures that supported the mass of the world-city above. Most of the doors he saw were locked and bolted, hung with elaborate seals. It was darker, too, he realized, as he wearily dragged to his feet and went looking for something to drink: his throat burned like fire. A drink dispenser was let into the wall ahead and was different from most of the ones he was used to in that it had thick steel bars reinforcing the front of the mechanism and was adorned with a large sign that read THIS MACHINE PROTECTED BY YOU-COOK-EM BURGLAR ALARMS ANY ATTEMPT TO BREAK INTO THE MECHANISM WILL RELEASE 100,000 VOLTS THROUGH THE CULPRIT RESPONSIBLE.

He found enough coins in his pocket to buy a double HeroinCola and stepped carefully back out of the range of any sparks while the cup filled.

He felt much better after draining it, until he looked in his wallet then he felt much worse. He had eight imperial bucks to his name, and when they were gone-then what? Self-pity broke through his exhausted and drug-ridden senses, and he wept. He was vaguely aware of occasional passersby but paid them no heed. Not until three men stopped close by and let a fourth sink to the floor.

Bill glanced at them, then looked away; their words coming dimly to his ears made no sense, since he was having afar better time wallowing in lacrimose indulgence.

Poor old Golph, looks like he's done for. That's for sure. He's rattling just about the nicest death rattle I ever heard. Leave him here for the cleaning robots. But what about the job? We need four to pull it. Let's take a look at deplanned over there. A heavy boot in Bill's side rolled him over and caught his attention. He blinked up at the circle of men all similar in their tattered clothes, dirty skins, and bearded faces. They were different in size and shape, though they all had one thing in common. None of them carried a floor plan, and they all looked strangely naked without the heavy, pendant volumes.

Where's your floor plan? the biggest and hairiest asked, and kicked Bill again.

Stolen he started to sob again.

Are you a trooper? They took away my ID card Got any bucks? Gone all gone like the dispos-a-steins of yesteryear Then you are one of the deplanned, the watchers chanted in unison, and helped Bill to his feet. Now-join with us in 'The Song of the Deplanned,' and with quavering voices they sang:

Stand together one and all, For Brothers Deplanned always shall, Unite and fight to achieve the Right, That Might shall fail and Truth avail, So that we, who once were free, can someday be Once more free to see the skies o f blue above, And hear the gentle piny-pat Of snow.

It doesn't rhyme very well, Bill said.

Ah, we's short of talent down here, we is, the smallest and oldest deplanned said, and coughed a hacking, rachitic cough.

Shut up, the big one said, and kidney-punched the old one and Bill. I'm Litvok, and this is my bunch. You part of my bunch now, newcomer, and your name is Golph 28169-minus No, I'm not; my name is Bill, and it's easier to say- He was slugged again.

Shaddup! Bill's a hard name because it's a new name, and I never remember no new names. I always got a Golph 28169-minus in my bunch. What's your name? BillOUCH! I mean Golph! That's better-but don't forget you got a last name too I is hungry, the old one whined. When we gonna make the raid? Now. Follow me. They stepped over the old Golph etc. who had expired while the new one was being initiated, and hurried away down a dark, dank back passage. Bill followed along, wondering what he had got himself into, but too weary to worry about it now. They were talking about food; after he had some food he would think about what to do next, but meanwhile he felt glad that someone was taking care of him and doing his thinking for him. It was just like being back in the troopers, only better, since you didn't even have to shave.

The little band of men emerged into a brightly lit hallway, cringing a little in the sudden glare. Litvok waved them to a stop and peered carefully in both directions, then cupped one dirt-grimed hand to his cauliflower ear and listened, frowning with the effort.

It looks clear. Schmutzig, you stay here and give the alarm if anyone comes, Sporco you go down the hall to the next bend, and you do same thing. You, new Golph, come with me. The two sentries scrambled off to their duties, while Bill followed Litvok into an alcove containing a locked metal door, which the burly leader opened with a single blow of a metal hammer he took from a place of concealment in his ragged clothes. Inside were a number of pipes of assorted dimensions that rose from the floor and vanished into the ceiling above. There were numbers stenciled onto each pipe, and Litvok pointed to them.

We gotta find kl-9256-B, he said. Let's go. Bill found the pipe quickly. It was about as big around as his wrist, and be had just called to the bunch leader when a shrill whistle sounded down the hall.

Outside! Litvok said, and pushed Bill before him, then closed the door and stood so that his body covered the broken lock. There was a growing rumbling and swishing noise that came down the hall toward them as they cowered in the alcove. Litvok held his hammer behind his back as the noise increased, and a sanitation robot appeared and swiveled its binocular eyestalk toward them.

Will you kindly move, this robot wishes to clean where you are standing, a recorded voice spoke from the robot in firm tones. It whirled its brushes at them hopefully.

Get lost, Litvok growled.

Interference with a sanitation robot during the performance of its duties is a punishable crime, as well as an antisocial act. Have you stopped to consider where you would be if the Sanitation Department wasn't Blabbermouth, Litvok snarled and hit the robot on top of its brain case with the hammer. WONKITY!! the robot shrilled, and went reeling down the hall dribbling water incontinently from its nozzles. Let's finish the job, Litvok said, throwing the door open again. He handed the hammer to Bill, and drawing a hacksaw from a place of concealment in his ragged clothes he attacked the pipe with frenzied strokes. The metal pipe was tough, and within a minute he was running with sweat and starting to tire.

Take over, he shouted at Bill. Go as fast as you can, then I take over again. Turn and turn about it took them less than three minutes to saw all the way through the pipe. Litvok slipped the saw back into his clothes and picked up the hammer. Get ready, he said, spitting on his hands and then taking a mighty swing at the pipe.

Two blows did it; the top part of the severed pipe bent out of alignment with the bottom, and from the opening began to pour an endless stream of linked green frankfurters. Litvok grabbed the end of the chain and threw it over Bill's shoulder, then began to coil loops of the things over his shoulders and arms, higher and higher. They reached the level of Bill's eyes and he could read the white lettering stamped all over their grass-green forms.

CHLORA-FILLIES they read, and THERE'S SUNSHINE IN EVERY LINK! and THE EQUINE WURST OF DISTINCTION, and TRY OUR DOBBIN-BURGERS NEXT TIME!

Enough Bill groaned, staggering under the weight. Litvok snapped the chain and began twining them over his own shoulders, when the flow of shiny green forms suddenly ceased. He pulled the last links from the pipe and pushed out the door.

The alarm went, they're onto us. Get out fast before the cops get herel He whistled shrilly, and the lookouts came running to join them. They fled, Bill stumbling under the weight of the wursts, in a nightmare race through tunnels, down stairs, ladders, and oily tubes, until they reached a dusty, deserted area where the dim lights were few and far between. Litvok pried a manhole up from the floor, and they dropped down one by one, to crawl through a cable and tube tunnel between levels. Schmutzig and Sporco came last to pick up the sausages that fell from Bill's aching back. Finally, through a pried-out grill, they reached their coal-black destination, and Bill collapsed onto the rubble-covered floor. With cries of greed the others stripped Bill of his cargo, and within a minute a fire was crackling in a metal wastebasket and the green redhots were toasting on a rack.

The delicious smell of roasting chlorophyll roused Bill, and he looked around with interest. By the flickering firelight he saw that they were in an immense chamber that vanished into the gloom in all directions. Thick pillars supported the ceiling and the city above, while between them loomed immense piles and heaps of all sizes. The old man, Sporco, walked over to the nearest heap and wrenched something free. When he returned Bill could see that he had sheets of paper that he began to feed one by one into the fire. One of the sheets fell near Bill and he saw, before he stuffed it into the flames, that it was a government form of some kind, yellow with age.

Though Bill had never enjoyed Chlora-fillies, he relished them now. Appetite was the sauce, and the burning paper added a new taste tang. They washed the sausages down with rusty water from a pail kept under a permanent drip from a pipe and feasted like kings. This is the good life, Bill thought, pulling another filly from the fire and blowing on it, good food, good drink, good companions. A free man.

Litvok and the old one were already asleep on beds of crumpled paper when the other man, Schmutzig, sidled over to Bill.

Have you found my ID card? he asked in a hoarse whisper, and Bill realized the man was mad. The flames reflected eerily from the cracked lenses of his glasses, and Bill could see that they had silver frames and must have once been very expensive. Around Schmutzig's neck, half hidden by his ragged beard, was the cracked remains of a collar and the tom shard of a once fine cravat.

No I haven't seen your ID card, Bill said, in fact I haven't seen mine since the first sergeant took it away from me and forgot to give it back. Bill began to feel song for himself again, and the foul frankfurters were sitting like lead in his stomach. Schmutzig ignored his answer, immersed as he was in his own far more interesting monomania.

I'm an important man, you know, Schmutzig von Dreck is a man to be reckoned with, they'll find out. They think they can get away with this, but they can't.

An error they said, just a simple error, the tape in the records section broke, and when they repaired it a little weensy bit got snipped out, and that was the piece with my record on it, and the first I heard about it was when my pay didn't arrive at the end of the month and I went to see them about it and they had never heard of me. But everyone has heard of me. Von Dreck is a good old name. I was an echelon manager before I was twenty-two and had a staff of 356 under me in the Staple and Paper Clip Division of the 89th Office Supply Wing.

So they couldn't make believe they never heard of me, even if I had left my ID card home in my other suit, and they had no reason clearing everything out of my apartment while I was away just because it was rented to what they said was an imaginary person. I could have proven who I was if I had my ID card

have you seen my ID card? This is where I came in, Bill thought, then aloud, That sure sounds rough.

I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll help you look for it. I'll go down here and see if I can find it. Before the softheaded Schmutzig could answer Bill had slipped away between the mountainous stacks of old files, very proud of himself for having outwitted a middle-aged nut: He was feeling pleasantly full and tired and didn't want to be bothered again. What he needed was a good night's rest, then in the morning he would think about this mess, maybe figure a way out of it. Feeling his way along the cluttered aisle he put a long distance between himself and the other deplanned before climbing up on a tottering stack of paper and from that clambering to a still higher one. He sighed with relief, arranged a little pile of paper for a pillow and closed his eyes.

Then the lights came on in rows high up on the ceiling of the warehouse and shrill police whistles sounded from all sides and guttural shouts that set him to shivering with fear.

Grab that one! Don't let him get away! I got the horse thief! You planless bowbs have stolen your last Chlora-filly! It's the uranium-salt mines on Zana-2 for you! Then, Do we have them all-? and as Bill lay clutching desperately at the forms, with his heart thudding with fear, the answer finally came.

Yeah, four of them, we been watching them for a long time, ready to pull them in if they tried anything like this. But we only got three here. I saw the fourth one earlier, getting carried off stiff as a board by a sanitation robot. Affirm, then let's go. Fear lashed through Bill again. How long before one of the bunch talked, ratted to buy a favor for himself, and told the cops that they had just sworn, in a new recruit? He had to get out of here. All the police now seemed to be bunched at the wienie roast, and he had to take a chance. Sliding from the pile as silently as he could, he began to creep in the opposite direction. If there was no exit this way he was trapped-no, mustn't think like that! Behind him whistles shrilled again, and he knew the hunt was on. Adrenalin poured into his bloodstream as he spurted forward, while rich, equine protein added strength to his legs and a decided canter to his gait. Ahead was a door, and he hurled his weight against it; for an instant it stuck-then squealed open on rusty hinges.

Heedless of danger, he hurled himself down the spiral staircase, down and down, and out of another door, fleeing wildly, thinking only of escape.

Once more, with the instincts of a hunted animal, he fled downward. He did not notice that the walls here were bolted together at places and streaked with rust, nor did he think it unusual when he had to pry open a jammed wooden doorwood on a planet that had not seen a tree in a hundred millenia! The air was danker and foul at times, and his fearridden course took him through a stone tunnel where nameless beasts fled before him with the rattle of evil claws. There were long stretches now doomed to eternal darkness where he had to feel his way, running his fingers along the repellent and slimy moss covered walls. Where there were lights they glowed but dimly behind their burdens of spider webs and insect corpses. He splashed through pools of stagnant water until, slowly, the strangeness of his surroundings penetrated, and he blinked about him. Set into the floor beneath his feet was another door, and, still gripped by the reflex of flight, he threw it open, but it led nowhere. Instead it gave access to a bin of some kind of granulated material, not unlike coarse sugar. Though it might just as well be insulation. It could be edible: he bent and picked some up between his fingers and ground it between his teeth. No, not edible, he spat it out, though there was something very familiar about it. Then it hit him.

It was dirt. Earth. Soil. Sand. The stuff that planets were made out of, that this planet was made out of, it was the surface of Helior, on which the incredible weight of the world-embracing city rested. He looked up, and in that unspeakable moment was suddenly aware of that weight, all that weight, above his head, pressing down and trying to crush him. Now he was on the bottom, rock bottom, and obsessed by galloping claustrophobia. Giving a weak scream, he stumbled down the hallway until it ended in an immense sealed and bolted door. There was no way out of this. And when he looked at the blackened thickness of the door he decided that he really didn't want to go out that way either. What nameless horrors might lurk behind a portal like this at the bottom of the world?

Then, while he watched, paralyzed, with staring eyes, the door squealed and started to swing open. He turned to run and screamed aloud in terror as something grabbed him in an unbreakable grip.


Chapter 3 | Bill, the Galactic Hero | Chapter 5



Loading...