Back on Earth, my old philosophy prof--possibly because he'd misplaced
his lecture notes--came into the classroom one day and scrutinized his
sixteen victims for the space of half a minute.  Satisfied then, that
a sufficiently profound tone had been established, he asked:
     "What is a man?"
     He had known exactly what he was doing.  He'd had an hour and a
half to kill, and eleven of the sixteen were coeds (nine of them in
liberal arts, and the other two stuck with an Area Requirement).
     One of the other two, who was in the pre-med program, proceeded to
provide a strict biological classification.
     The prof (McNitt was his name, I suddenly recall) nodded then, and
asked:
     "Is that all?"
     And there was his hour and a half.
     I learned that Man is a Reasoning Animal, Man is the One Who
Laughs, Man is greater than beasts but less than angels, Man is the
one who watches himself watching himself doing things he knows are
absurd (this from a Comparative Lit gal), Man is the
culture-transmitting animal, Man is the spirit which aspires, affirms,
loves, the one who uses tools, buries his dead, devises religions, and
the one who tries to define himself.  (That last from Paul Schwartz,
my roommate--which I thought pretty good, on the spur of the moment.
Wonder whatever became of Paul?)
     Anyhow, to most of these I say "perhaps" or "partly, but--" or just
plain "crap!"  I still think mine was the best, because I had a chance
to try it out, on Tierra del Cygnus, Land of the Swan...
     I'd said, "Man is the sum total of everything he has done, wishes
to do or not to do, and wishes he hadn't done, or hadn't."
     Stop and think about it for a minute.  It's purposely as general
as the others, but it's got room in it for the biology and the
laughing and the aspiring, as well as the culture-transmitting, the
love, and the room full of mirrors, and the defining.  I even left the
door open for religion, you'll note.  But it's limiting, too.  Ever
met an oyster to whom the final phrases apply?
     Tierra del Cygnus, Land of the Swan--delightful name.
     Delightful place too, for quite awhile...
     It was there that I saw Man's definitions, one by one, wiped from
off the big blackboard, until only mine was left.
     ...My radio had been playing more static than usual.  That's all.
     For several hours there was no other indication of what was to
come.
     My hundred-thirty eyes had watched Betty all morning, on that
clear, cool spring day with the sun pouring down its honey and
lightning upon the amber fields, flowing through the streets, invading
western store-fronts, drying curbstones, and washing the olive and
umber buds that speared the skin of the trees there by the roadway;
and the light that wrung the blue from the flag before Town Hall made
orange mirrors out of windows, chased purple and violet patches across
the shoulders of Saint Stephen's Range, some thirty miles distant, and
came down upon the forest at its feet like some supernatural madman
with a million buckets of paint--each of a different shade of green,
yellow, orange, blue and red--to daub with miles-wide brushes at its
heaving sea of growth.
     Mornings the sky is cobalt, midday is turquoise, and sunset is
emeralds and rubies, hard and flashing.  It was halfway between cobalt
and seamist at 1100 hours, when I watched Betty with my hundred-thirty
eyes and saw nothing to indicate what was about to be.  There was only
that persistent piece of static, accompanying the piano and strings
within my portable.
     It's funny how the mind personifies, engenders.  Ships are always
women: You say, "She's a good old tub," or, "She's a fast, tough
number, this one," slapping a bulwark and feeling the aura of
femininity that clings to the vessel's curves; or, conversely, "He's a
bastard to start, that Sam!" as you kick the auxiliary engine to an
inland transport-vehicle; and hurricanes are always women, and moons,
and seas.  Cities, though, are different.  Generally, they're neuter.
Nobody calls New York or San Francisco "he" or "she".  Usually, cities
are just "it".
     Sometimes, however, they do come to take on the attributes of sex.
Usually, this is in the case of small cities near to the
Mediterranean, back on Earth.  Perhaps this is because of the
sex-ridden nouns of the languages which prevail in that vicinity, in
which case it tells us more about the inhabitants than it does about
the habitations.  But I feel that it goes deeper than that.
     Betty was Beta Station for less than ten years.  After two decades
she was Betty officially, by act of Town Council.  Why?  Well, I felt
at the time (ninety-some years ago), and still feel, that it was
because she was what she was--a place of rest and repair, of
surface-cooked meals and of new voices, new faces, of landscapes,
weather, and natural light again, after that long haul through the big
night, with its casting away of so much.  She is not home, she is
seldom destination, but she is like unto both.  When you come upon
light and warmth and music after darkness and cold and silence, it is
Woman.  The oldtime Mediterranean sailor must have felt it when he
first spied port at the end of a voyage.  _I_ felt it when I first saw
Beta Station-Betty-and the second time I saw her, also.
     I am her Hell Cop.
     ...When six or seven of my hundred-thirty eyes flickered, then saw
again, and the music was suddenly washed away by a wave of static, it
was then that I began to feel uneasy.
     I called Weather Central for a report, and the recorded girlvoice
told me that seasonal rains were expected in the afternoon or early
evening.  I hung up and switched an eye from ventral to dorsal-vision.
     Not a cloud.  Not a ripple.  Only a formation of green-winged
ski-toads, heading north, crossed the field of the lens.
     I switched it back, and I watched the traffic flow, slowly, and
without congestion, along Betty's prim, well-tended streets.  Three
men were leaving the bank and two more were entering.  I recognized
the three who were leaving, and in my mind I waved as I passed by.
All was still at the post office, and patterns of normal activity lay
upon the steel mills, the stockyard, the plast-synth plants, the
airport, the spacer pads, and the surfaces of all the shopping
complexes; vehicles came and went at the Inland Transport-Vehicle
garages, crawling from the rainbow forest and the mountains beyond
like dark slugs, leaving tread-trails to mark their comings and goings
through wilderness; and the fields of the countryside were still
yellow and brown, with occasional patches of green and pink; the
country houses, mainly simple A-frame affairs, were chisel blade,
spike-tooth, spire and steeple, each with a big lightning rod, and
dipped in many colors and scooped up in the cups of my seeing and
dumped out again, as I sent my eyes on their rounds and tended my
gallery of one hundred-thirty changing pictures, on the big wall of
the Trouble Center, there atop the Watch Tower of Town Hall.
     The static came and went until I had to shut off the radio.
Fragments of music are worse than no music at all.
     My eyes, coasting weightless along magnetic lines, began to blink.
     I knew then that we were in for something.
     I sent an eye scurrying off toward Saint Stephen's at full speed,
which meant a wait of about twenty minutes until it topped the range.
Another, I sent straight up, skywards, which meant perhaps ten minutes
for a long shot of the same scene.  Then I put the auto-scan in full
charge of operations and went downstairs for a cup of coffee.

     I entered the Mayor's outer office, winked at Lottie, the receptionist,
and glanced at the inner door.
     "Mayor in?" I asked.
     I got an occasional smile from Lottie, a slightly heavy, but
well-rounded girl of indeterminate age and intermittent acne, but this
wasn't one of the occasions.
     "Yes," she said, returning to the papers on her desk.
     "Alone?"
     She nodded, and her earrings danced.  Dark eyes and dark
complexion, she could have been kind of sharp, if only she'd fix her
hair and use more makeup.  Well...
     I crossed to the door and knocked.
     "Who?" asked the Mayor.
     "Me," I said, opening it, "Godfrey Justin Holmes--`God' for short.
I want someone to drink coffee with, and you're elected."
     She turned in her swivel chair, away from the window she had been
studying, and her blonde-hair-white-hair-fused, short and parted in
the middle, gave a little stir as she turned--like a sunshot snowdrift
struck by sudden winds.
     She smiled and said, "I'm busy."
     `Eyes green, chin small, cute little ears--I love them all'--from an
anonymous Valentine I'd sent her two months previous, and true.
     "...But not too busy to have coffee with God," she stated.  "Have
a throne, and I'll make us some instant."
     I did, and she did.
     While she was doing it, I leaned back, lit a cigarette I'd
borrowed from her canister, and remarked, "Looks like rain."
     "Uh-huh," she said.
     "Not just making conversation," I told her.  "There's a bad storm
brewing somewhere--over Saint Stephen's, I think.  I'll know real
soon."
     "Yes grandfather," she said, bringing me my coffee.  "You old
timers with all your aches and pains are often better than Weather
Central, it's an established fact.  I won't argue."
     She smiled, frowned, then smiled again.
     I set my cup on the edge of her desk.
     "Just wait and see," I said.  "If it makes it over the mountains,
it'll be a nasty high-voltage job.  It's already jazzing up
reception."
     Big-bowed white blouse, and black skirt around a well-kept figure.
She'd be forty in the fall, but she'd never completely tamed her
facial reflexes--which was most engaging, so far as I was concerned.
Spontaneity of expression so often vanishes so soon.  I could see the
sort of child she'd been by looking at her, listening to her now.  The
thought of being forty was bothering her again, too, I could tell.
She always kids me about age when age is bothering her.
     See, I'm around thirty-five, actually, which makes me her junior
by a bit, but she'd heard her grandfather speak of me when she was a
kid, before I came back again this last time.  I'd filled out the
balance of his two-year term, back when Betty-Beta's first mayor,
Wyeth, had died after two months in office.  I was born about five
hundred ninety-seven years ago, on Earth, but I spent about five
hundred sixty-two of those years sleeping, during my long jaunts
between the stars.  I've made a few more trips than a few others;
consequently, I am an anachronism.  I am really, of course, only as
old as I look--but still, people always seem to feel that I've cheated
somehow, especially women in their middle years.  Sometimes it is most
disconcerting...
     "Eleanor," said I, "your term will be up in November.  Are you
still thinking of running again?"
     She took off her narrow, elegantly-trimmed glasses and brushed her
eyelids with thumb and forefinger.  Then she took a sip of coffee.
     "I haven't made up my mind."
     "I ask not for press-release purposes," I said, "but for my own."
     "Really, I haven't decided," she told me.  "I don't know..."
     "Okay, just checking.  Let me know if you do."
     I drank some coffee.
     After a time, she said, "Dinner Saturday?  As usual?"
     "Yes, good."
     "I'll tell you then."
     "Fine--capital."
     As she looked down into her coffee, I saw a little girl staring
into a pool, waiting for it to clear, to see her reflection or to see
the bottom of the pool, or perhaps both.
     She smiled at whatever it was she finally saw.
     "A bad storm?" she asked me.
     "Yep.  Feel it in my bones."
     "Tell it to go away?"
     "Tried.  Don't think it will, though."
     "Better batten some hatches, then."
     "It wouldn't hurt and it might help."
     "The weather satellite will be overhead in another half hour.
You'll have something sooner?"
     "Think so.  Probably any minute."
     I finished my coffee, washed out the cup.
     "Let me know right away what it is."
     "Check.  Thanks for the coffee."
     Lottie was still working and did not look up as I passed.

     Upstairs again, my highest eye was now high enough.  I stood it on its
tail and collected a view of the distance: Fleecy mobs of clouds
boiled and frothed on the other side of Saint Stephen's.  The mountain
range seemed a breakwall, a dam, a rocky shoreline.  Beyond it, the
waters were troubled.
     My other eye was almost in position.  I waited the space of half a
cigarette, then it delivered me a sight:
     Gray, and wet and impenetrable, a curtain across the countryside,
that's what I saw.
     ...And advancing.
     I called Eleanor.
     "It's gonna rain, chillun," I said.
     "Worth some sandbags?"
     "Possibly."
     "Better be ready then.  Okay.  Thanks."
     I returned to my watching.
     Tierra del Cygnus, Land of the Swan--delightful name.  It refers to
both the planet and its sole continent.
     How to describe the world, like quick?  Well, roughly Earth-size;
actually, a bit smaller, and more watery.  --As for the main landmass,
first hold a mirror up to South America, to get the big bump from the
right side over to the left, then rotate it ninety degrees in a
counter-clockwise direction and push it up into the northern
hemisphere.  Got that?  Good.  Now grab it by the tail and pull.
Stretch it another six or seven hundred miles, slimming down the
middle as you do, and let the last five or six hundred fall across the
equator.  There you have Cygnus, its big gulf partly in the tropics,
partly not.  Just for the sake of thoroughness, while you're about it,
break Australia into eight pieces and drop them after the first eight
letters in the Greek alphabet.  Put a big scoop of vanilla at each
pole, and don't forget to tilt the globe about eighteen degrees before
you leave.  Thanks.
     I recalled my wandering eyes, and I kept a few of the others
turned toward Saint Stephen's until the cloudbanks breasted the range
about an hour later.  By then, though, the weather satellite had
passed over and picked the thing up also.  It reported quite an
extensive cloud cover on the other side.  The storm had sprung up
quickly, as they often do here on Cygnus.  Often, too, they disperse
just as quickly, after an hour or so of heaven's artillery.  But then
there are the bad ones--sometimes lingering and lingering, and bearing
more thunderbolts in their quivers than any Earth storm.
     Betty's position, too, is occasionally precarious, though its
advantages, in general, offset its liabilities.  We are located on the
gulf, about twenty miles inland, and are approximately three miles
removed (in the main) from a major river, the Noble; part of Betty
does extend down to its banks, but this is a smaller part.  We are
almost a strip city, falling mainly into an area some seven miles in
length and two miles wide, stretching inland, east from the river, and
running roughly parallel to the distant seacoast.  Around eighty
percent of the 100,000 population is concentrated about the business
district, five miles in from the river.
     We are not the lowest land about, but we are far from being the
highest.  We are certainly the most level in the area.  This latter
feature, as well as our nearness to the equator, was a deciding factor
in the establishment of Beta Station.  Some other things were our
proximity both to the ocean and to a large river.  There are nine
other cities on the continent, all of them younger and smaller, and
three of them located upriver from us.  We are the potential capital
of a potential country.
     We're a good, smooth, easy landing site for drop-boats from
orbiting interstellar vehicles, and we have major assets for future
growth and coordination when it comes to expanding across the
continent.  Our original _raison d'etre_, though, was Stopover,
repair-point, supply depot, and refreshment stand, physical and
psychological, on the way out to other, more settled worlds, further
along the line.  Cyg was discovered later than many others--it just
happened that way--and the others got off to earlier starts.  Hence,
the others generally attract more colonists.  We are still quite
primitive.  Self-sufficiency, in order to work on our population:land
scale, demanded a society on the order of that of the mid-nineteenth
century in the American southwest--at least for purposes of getting
started.  Even now, Cyg is still partly on a natural economy system,
although Earth Central technically determines the coin of the realm.
     Why Stopover, if you sleep most of the way between the stars?
     Think about it a while, and I'll tell you later if you're right.
     The thunderheads rose in the east, sending billows and streamers
this way and that, until it seemed from the formations that Saint
Stephen's was a balcony full of monsters, leaning and craning their
necks over the rail in the direction of the stage, us.  Cloud piled
upon slate-colored cloud, and then the wall slowly began to topple.
     I heard the first rumbles of thunder almost half an hour after
lunch, so I knew it wasn't my stomach.
     Despite all my eyes, I moved to a window to watch.  It was like a
big, gray, aerial glacier plowing the sky.
     There was a wind now, for I saw the trees suddenly quiver and bow
down.  This would be our first storm of the season.  The turquoise
fell back before it, and finally it smothered the sun itself.  Then
there were drops upon the windowpane, then rivulets.
     Flint-like, the highest peaks of Saint Stephen's scraped its belly
and were showered with sparks.  After a moment it bumped into
something with a terrible crash, and the rivulets on the quartz panes
turned back into rivers.
     I went back to my gallery, to smile at dozens of views of people
scurrying for shelter.  A smart few had umbrellas and raincoats.  The
rest ran like blazes.  People never pay attention to weather reports;
this, I believe, is a constant factor in man's psychological makeup,
stemming perhaps from an ancient tribal distrust of the shaman.  You
want them to be wrong.  If they're right, then they're somehow
superior, and this is even more uncomfortable than getting wet.
     I remembered then that I had forgotten my raincoat, umbrella, and
rubbers.  But it _had_ been a beautiful morning, and W.C. _could_ have
been wrong...
     Well, I had another cigarette and leaned back in my big chair.  No
storm in the world could knock my eyes out of the sky.
     I switched on the filters and sat and watched the rain pour past.

     Five hours later it was still raining, and rumbling and dark.
     I'd had hopes that it would let up by quitting time, but when
Chuck Fuller came around the picture still hadn't changed any.  Chuck
was my relief that night, the evening Hell Cop.
     He seated himself beside my desk.
     "You're early," I said.  "They don't start paying you for another
hour."
     "Too wet to do anything but sit.  'Rather sit here than at home."
     "Leaky roof?"
     He shook his head.
     "Mother-in-law.  Visiting again."
     I nodded.
     "One of the disadvantages of a small world."
     He clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned back in the chair,
staring off in the direction of the window.  I could feel one of his
outbursts coming.
     "You know how old I am?" he asked, after a while.
     "No," I said, which was a lie.  He was twenty-nine.
     "Twenty-seven," he told me, "and going to be twenty-eight soon.
Know where I've been?"
     "No."
     "No place, that's where!  I was born and raised on this crummy
world!  And I married and I settled down here--and I've never been off
it!  Never could afford it when I was younger.  Now I've got a
family..."
     He leaned forward again, rested his elbow on his knees, like a
kid.  Chuck would look like a kid when he was fifty.  --Blond hair,
close-cropped, pug nose, kind of scrawny, takes a suntan quickly, and
well.  Maybe he'd act like a kid at fifty, too.  I'll never know.
     I didn't say anything because I didn't have anything to say.
     He was quiet for a long while again.
     Then he said, "_You've_ been around."
     After a minute, he went on:
     "You were born on Earth.  Earth!  And you visited lots of other
worlds too, before I was even born.  Earth is only a name to me.  And
pictures.  And all the others--they're the same!  Pictures.  Names..."
     I waited, then after I grew tired of waiting I said, "'Miniver
Cheevy, child of scorn...'"
     "What does that mean?"
     "It's the ancient beginning to an ancient poem.  It's an ancient
poem now, but it wasn't ancient when I was a boy.  Just old.  _I_ had
friends, relatives, even in-laws, once myself.  They are just bones
now.  They are dust.  Real dust, not metaphorical dust.  The past
fifteen years seem fifteen years to me, the same as to you, but
they're not.  They are already many chapters back in the history
books.  Whenever you travel between the stars you automatically bury
the past.  The world you leave will be filled with strangers if you
ever return--or caricatures of your friends, your relatives, even
yourself.  It's no great trick to be a grandfather at sixty, a
great-grandfather at seventy-five or eighty--but go away for three
hundred years, and then come back and meet your great-great-great-
great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, who
happens to be fifty-five years old, and puzzled, when you look him up.
It shows you just how alone you really are.  You are not simply a man
without a country or without a world.  You are a man without a time.
You and the centuries do not belong to each other.  You are like the
rubbish that drifts between the stars."
     "It would be worth it," he said.
     I laughed.  I'd had to listen to his gripes every month or two for
over a year and a half.  It had never bothered me much before, so I
guess it was a cumulative effect that day--the rain, and Saturday night
next, and my recent library visits, _and_ his complaining, that had
set me off.
     His last comment had been too much.  "It would be worth it."
What could I say to that?
     I laughed.
     He turned bright red.
     "You're laughing at me!"
     He stood up and glared down.
     "No, I'm not," I said, "I'm laughing at me.  I shouldn't have been
bothered by what you said, but I was.  That tells me something funny
about me."
     "What?"
     "I'm getting sentimental in my old age, and that's funny."
     "Oh."  He turned his back on me and walked over to the window and
stared out.  Then he jammed his hands into his pockets and turned
around and looked at me.
     "Aren't you happy?" he asked.  "Really, I mean?  You've got money,
and no strings on you.  You could pick up and leave on the next I-V
that passes, if you wanted to."
     "Sure I'm happy," I told him.  "My coffee was cold.  Forget it."
     "Oh," again.  He turned back to the window in time to catch a
bright flash full in the face, and to have to compete with thunder to
get his next words out.  "I'm sorry," I heard him say, as in the
distance.  "It just seems to me that you should be one of the happiest
guys around..."
     "I am.  It's the weather today.  It's got everybody down in the
mouth, yourself included."
     "Yeah, you're right," he said.  "Look at it rain, will you?
Haven't seen any rain in months..."
     "They've been saving it all up for today."
     He chuckled.
     "I'm going down for a cup of coffee and a sandwich before I sign
in.  Can I bring you anything?"
     "No, thanks."
     "Okay.  See you in a little while."
     He walked out whistling.  He never stays depressed.  Like a kid's
moods, his moods, up and down, up and down...And he's a Hell Cop.
Probably the worst possible job for him, having to keep up his
attention in one place for so long.  They say the job title comes from
the name of an antique flying vehicle--a hellcopper, I think.  We send
our eyes on their appointed rounds, and they can hover or soar or back
up, just like those old machines could.  We patrol the city and the
adjacent countryside.  Law enforcement isn't much of a problem on Cyg.
We never peek in windows or send an eye into a building without an
invitation.  Our testimony is admissible in court--or, if we're fast
enough to press a couple buttons, the tape that we make does an even
better job--and we can dispatch live or robot cops in a hurry,
depending on which will do a better job.
     There isn't much crime on Cyg, though, despite the fact that
everybody carries a sidearm of some kind, even little kids.  Everybody
knows pretty much what their neighbors are up to, and there aren't too
many places for a fugitive to run.  We're mainly aerial traffic cops,
with an eye out for local wildlife (which is the reason for all the
sidearms).
     S.P.C.H. is what we call the latter function--Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Us--Which is the reason each of my
hundred-thirty eyes has six forty-five caliber eyelashes.
     There are things like the cute little panda-puppy--oh, about three
feet high at the shoulder when it sits down on its rear like a teddy
bear, and with big, square, silky ears, a curly pinto coat, large,
limpid, brown eyes, pink tongue, button nose, powder puff tail, sharp
little white teeth more poisonous than a Quemeda Island viper's, and
possessed of a way with mammal entrails like unto the way of an
imaginative cat with a rope of catnip.
     Then there's a _snapper_, which _looks_ as mean as it sounds: a
feathered reptile, with three horns on its armored head--one beneath
each eye, like a tusk, and one curving skyward from the top of its
nose--legs about eighteen inches long, and a four-foot tail which it
raises straight into the air whenever it jogs along at greyhound
speed, and which it swings like a sandbag--and a mouth full of long,
sharp teeth.
     Also, there are amphibious things which come from the ocean by way
of the river on occasion.  I'd rather not speak of them.  They're kind
of ugly and vicious.
     Anyway, those are some of the reasons why there are Hell Cops--not
just on Cyg, but on many, many frontier worlds.  I've been employed in
that capacity on several of them, and I've found that an experienced
H.C. can always find a job Out Here.  It's like being a professional
clerk back home.
     Chuck took longer than I thought he would, came back after I was
technically off duty, looked happy though, so I didn't say anything.
There was some pale lipstick on his collar and a grin on his face, so
I bade him good morrow, picked up my cane, and departed in the
direction of the big washing machine.
     It was coming down too hard for me to go the two blocks to my car
on foot.
     I called a cab and waited another fifteen minutes.  Eleanor had
decided to keep Mayor's Hours, and she'd departed shortly after lunch;
and almost the entire staff had been released an hour early because of
the weather.  Consequently, Town Hall was full of dark offices and
echoes.  I waited in the hallway behind the main door, listening to
the purr of the rain as it fell, and hearing its gurgle as it found
its way into the gutters.  It beat the street and shook the
windowpanes and made the windows cold to touch.
     I'd planned on spending the evening at the library, but I changed
my plans as I watched the weather happen.  --Tomorrow, or the next day,
I decided.  It was an evening for a good meal, a hot bath, my own
books and brandy, and early to bed.  It was good sleeping weather, if
nothing else.  A cab pulled up in front of the Hall and blew its horn.
     I ran.

     The next day the rain let up for perhaps an hour in the morning.  Then
a slow drizzle began; and it did not stop again.
     It went on to become a steady downpour by afternoon.
     The following day was Friday, which I always have off, and I was
glad that it was.
     Put dittoes under Thursday's weather report.  That's Friday.
     But I decided to do something anyway.
     I lived down in that section of town near the river.  The Noble
was swollen, and the rains kept adding to it.  Sewers had begun to
clog and back up; water ran into the streets.  The rain kept coming
down and widening the puddles and lakelets, and it was accompanied by
drum solos in the sky and the falling of bright forks and sawblades.
Dead skytoads were washed along the gutters, like burnt-out fireworks.
Ball lightning drifted across Town Square; Saint Elmo's fire clung to
the flag pole, the Watch Tower, and the big statue of Wyeth trying to
look heroic.
     I headed uptown to the library, pushing my car slowly through the
countless beaded curtains.  The big furniture movers in the sky were
obviously non-union, because they weren't taking any coffee breaks.
Finally, I found a parking place and I umbrellaed my way to the
library and entered.
     I have become something of a bibliophile in recent years.  It is
not so much that I hunger and thirst after knowledge, but that I am
news-starved.
     It all goes back to my position in the big mixmaster.  Admitted,
there are _some_ things faster than light, like the phase velocities
of radio waves in ion plasma, or the tips of the ion-modulated
light-beams of Duckbill, the comm-setup back in Sol System, whenever
the hinges of the beak snap shut on Earth--but these are highly
restricted instances, with no application whatsoever to the passage
of shiploads of people and objects between the stars.  You can't
exceed lightspeed when it comes to the movement of matter.  You can
edge up pretty close, but that's about it.
     Life can be suspended though, that's easy--it can be switched off
and switched back on again with no trouble at all.  This is why _I_
have lasted so long.  If we can't speed up the ships, we _can_ slow
down the people--slow them until they stop--and _let_ the vessel, moving
at near-lightspeed, take half a century, or more if it needs it, to
convey its passengers to where they are going.  This is why I am very
alone.  Each little death means resurrection into both another land
and another time.  I have had several, and _this_ is why I have become
a bibliophile: news travels slowly, as slowly as the ships and the
people.  Buy a newspaper before you hop aboard a ship and it will
still be a newspaper when you reach your destination--but back where
you bought it, it would be considered an historical document.  Send a
letter back to Earth and your correspondent's grandson may be able to
get an answer back to your great-grandson, if the message makes real
good connections and both kids live long enough.
     All the little libraries Out Here are full of rare books--first
editions of best sellers which people pick up before they leave
Someplace Else, and which they often donate after they've finished.
We assume that these books have entered the public domain by the time
they reach here, and we reproduce them and circulate our own editions.
No author has ever sued, and no reproducer has ever been around to
_be_ sued by representatives, designates, or assigns.
     We are completely autonomous and are always behind the times,
because there is a transit-lag which cannot be overcome.  Earth
Central, therefore, exercises about as much control over us as a boy
jiggling a broken string while looking up at his kite.
     Perhaps Yeats had something like this in mind when he wrote that
fine line, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."  I doubt it,
but I still have to go to the library to read the news.

     The day melted around me.
     The words flowed across the screen in my booth as I read
newspapers and magazines, untouched by human hands, and the waters
flowed across Betty's acres, pouring down from the mountains now,
washing the floors of the forest, churning our fields to
peanut-butter, flooding basements, soaking its way through everything,
and tracking our streets with mud.
     I hit the library cafeteria for lunch, where I learned from a girl
in a green apron and yellow skirts (which swished pleasantly) that the
sandbag crews were now hard at work and that there was no eastbound
traffic past Town Square.
     After lunch I put on my slicker and boots and walked up that way.
     Sure enough, the sandbag wall was already waist high across Main
Street; but then, the water _was_ swirling around at ankle level, and
more of it falling every minute.
     I looked up at old Wyeth's statue.  His halo had gone away now,
which was sort of to be expected.  It had made an honest mistake and
realized it after a short time.
     He was holding a pair of glasses in his left hand and sort of
glancing down at me, as though a bit apprehensive, wondering perhaps,
there inside all that bronze, if I would tell on him now and ruin his
hard, wet, greenish splendor.  Tell...?  I guess I was the only one
around who really remembered the man.  He had wanted to be the father
of this great new country, literally, and he'd tried awfully hard.
Three months in office and I'd had to fill out the rest of the
two-year term.  The death certificate gave the cause as "heart
stoppage", but it didn't mention the piece of lead which had helped
slow things down a bit.  Everybody involved is gone now: the irate
husband, the frightened wife, the coroner.  All but me.  And I won't
tell anybody if Wyeth's statue won't, because he's a hero now, and we
need heroes' statues Out Here even more than we do heroes.  He _did_
engineer a nice piece of relief work during the Butler Township
floods, and he may as well be remembered for that.
     I winked at my old boss, and the rain dripped from his nose and
fell into the puddle at my feet.
     I walked back to the library through loud sounds and bright
flashes, hearing the splashing and the curses of the work crew as the
men began to block off another street.  Black, overhead, an eye
drifted past.  I waved, and the filter snapped up and back down again.
I think H.C. John Keams was tending shop that afternoon, but I'm not
sure.
     Suddenly the heavens opened up and it was like standing under a
waterfall.
     I reached for a wall and there wasn't one, slipped then, and
managed to catch myself with my cane before I flopped.  I found a
doorway and huddled.
     Ten minutes of lightning and thunder followed.  Then, after the
blindness and the deafness passed away and the rains had eased a bit,
I saw that the street (Second Avenue) had become a river.  Bearing all
sorts of garbage, papers, hats, sticks, mud, it sloshed past my niche,
gurgling nastily.  It looked to be over my boot tops, so I waited for
it to subside.
     It didn't.
     It got right up in there with me and started to play footsie.
     So, then seemed as good a time as any.  Things certainly weren't
getting any better.
     I tried to run, but with filled boots the best you can manage is a
fast wade, and my boots were filled after three steps.
     That shot the afternoon.  How can you concentrate on anything with
wet feet?  I made it back to the parking lot, then churned my way
homeward, feeling like a riverboat captain who really wanted to be a
camel driver.
     It seemed more like evening that afternoon when I pulled up into
my damp but unflooded garage.  It seemed more like night than evening
in the alley I cut through on the way to my apartment's back entrance.
I hadn't seen the sun for several days, and it's funny how much you
can miss it when it takes a vacation.  The sky was a stable dome, and
the high brick walls of the alley were cleaner than I'd ever seen
them, despite the shadows.
     I stayed close to the lefthand wall, in order to miss some of the
rain.  As I had driven along the river I'd noticed that it was already
reaching after the high water marks on the sides of the piers.  The
Noble was a big, spoiled, blood sausage, ready to burst its skin.  A
lightning flash showed me the whole alley, and I slowed in order to
avoid puddles.
     I moved ahead, thinking of dry socks and dry martinis, turned a
corner to the right, and it struck at me: an org.
     Half of its segmented body was reared at a forty-five degree angle
above the pavement, which placed its wide head with the traffic-signal
eyes saying "Stop", about three and a half feet off the ground, as it
rolled toward me on all its pale little legs, with its mouthful of
death aimed at my middle.
     I pause now in my narrative for a long digression concerning my
childhood, which, if you will but consider the circumstances, I was
obviously fresh on it an instant:
     Born, raised, educated on Earth, I had worked two summers in a
stockyard while going to college.  I still remember the smells and the
noises of the cattle; I used to prod them out of the pens and on their
way up the last mile.  And I remember the smells and noises of the
university: the formaldehyde in the Bio labs, the sounds of Freshmen
slaughtering French verbs, the overpowering aroma of coffee mixed with
cigarette smoke in the Student Union, the splash of the newly-pinned
frat man as his brothers tossed him into the lagoon down in front of
the Art Museum, the sounds of ignored chapel bells and class bells,
the smell of the lawn after the year's first mowing (with big, black
Andy perched on his grass-chewing monster, baseball cap down to his
eyebrows, cigarette somehow not burning his left cheek), and always,
always, the _tick-tick-snick-stamp!_ as I moved up or down the strip.
I had not wanted to take General Physical Education, but four
semesters of it were required.  The only out was to take a class in a
special sport.  I picked fencing because tennis, basketball, boxing,
wrestling, handball, judo, all sounded too strenuous, and I couldn't
afford a set of golf clubs.  Little did I suspect what would follow
this choice.  It was as strenuous as any of the others, and more than
several.  But I liked it.  So I tried out for the team in my Sophomore
year, made it on the epee squad, and picked up three varsity letters,
because I stuck with it through my Senior year.  Which all goes to
show: Cattle who persevere in looking for an easy out still wind up in
the abattoir, but they may enjoy the trip a little more.
     When I came out here on the raw frontier where people all carry
weapons, I had my cane made.  It combines the best features of the
epee and the cattle prod.  Only, it is the kind of prod which, if you
were to prod cattle with it, they would never move again.
     Over eight hundred volts, max, when the tip touches, if the stud
in the handle is depressed properly...
     My arm shot out and up and my fingers depressed the stud properly
as it moved.
     That was it for the org.
     A noise came from beneath the rows of razor blades in its mouth as
I scored a touch on its soft underbelly and whipped my arm away to the
side--a noise halfway between an exhalation and "peep"--and that was it
for the org (short for
"organism-with-a-long-name-which-I-can't-remember").
     I switched off my cane and walked around it.  It was one of those
things which sometimes come out of the river.  I remember that I
looked back at it three times, then I switched the cane on again at
max and kept it that way till I was inside my apartment with the door
locked behind me and all the lights burning.
     Then I permitted myself to tremble, and after awhile I changed my
socks and mixed my drink.
     May your alleys be safe from orgs.

     Saturday.
     More rain.
     Wetness was all.
     The entire east side had been shored with sand bags.  In some
places they served only to create sandy waterfalls, where otherwise
the streams would have flowed more evenly and perhaps a trifle more
clearly.  In other places they held it all back, for awhile.
     By then, there were six deaths as a direct result of the rains.
     By then, there had been fires caused by the lightning, accidents
by the water, sicknesses by the dampness, the cold.
     By then, property damages were beginning to mount pretty high.
     Everyone was tired and angry and miserable and wet, by then.  This
included me.
     Though Saturday was Saturday, I went to work.  I worked in
Eleanor's office, with her.  We had the big relief map spread on a
table, and six mobile eyescreens were lined against one wall.  Six
eyes hovered above the half-dozen emergency points and kept us abreast
of the actions taken upon them.  Several new telephones and a big
radio set stood on the desk.  Five ashtrays looked as if they wanted
to be empty, and the coffee pot chuckled cynically at human activity.
     The Noble had almost reached its high water mark.  We were not an
isolated storm center by any means.  Upriver, Butler Township was
hurting, Swan's Nest was adrip, Laurie was weeping the river, and the
wilderness in between was shaking and streaming.
     Even though we were in direct contact we went into the field on
three occasions that morning--once, when the north-south bridge over
the Lance River collapsed and was washed down toward the Noble as far
as the bend by the Mack steel mill; again, when the Wildwood Cemetery,
set up on a storm-gouged hill to the east, was plowed deeply, graves
opened, and several coffins set awash; and finally, when three houses
full of people toppled, far to the east.  Eleanor's small flyer was
buffeted by the winds as we fought our way through to these sites for
on-the-spot supervision; I navigated almost completely by instruments.
Downtown proper was accommodating evacuees left and right by then.  I
took three showers that morning and changed clothes twice.
     Things slowed down a bit in the afternoon, including the rain.
The cloud cover didn't break, but a drizzle-point was reached which
permitted us to gain a little on the waters.  Retaining walls were
reinforced, evacuees were fed and dried, some of the rubbish was
cleaned up.  Four of the six eyes were returned to their patrols,
because four of the emergency points were no longer emergency points.
     ...And we wanted all of the eyes for the org patrol.
     Inhabitants of the drenched forest were also on the move.  Seven
_snappers_ and a horde of panda-puppies were shot that day, as well as
a few crawly things from the troubled waters of the Noble--not to
mention assorted branch-snakes, stingbats, borers, and land-eels.
     By 1900 hours it seemed that a stalemate had been achieved.
Eleanor and I climbed into her flyer and drifted skyward.
     We kept rising.  Finally, there was a hiss as the cabin began to
pressurize itself.  The night was all around us.  Eleanor's face, in
the light from the instrument panel, was a mask of weariness.  She
raised her hands to her temples as if to remove it, and then when I
looked back again it appeared that she had.  A faint smile lay across
her lips now and her eyes sparkled.  A stray strand of hair shadowed
her brow.
     "Where are you taking me?" she asked.
     "Up, high," said I, "above the storm."
     "Why?"
     "It's been many days," I said, "since we have seen an uncluttered
sky."
     "True," she agreed, and as she leaned forward to light a cigarette
I noticed that the part in her hair had gone all askew.  I wanted to
reach out and straighten it for her, but I didn't.
     We plunged into the sea of clouds.
     Dark was the sky, moonless.  The stars shone like broken diamonds.
The clouds were a floor of lava.
     We drifted.  We stared up into the heavens.  I "anchored" the
flyer, like an eye set to hover, and lit a cigarette myself.
     "You are older than I am," she finally said, "really.  You know?"
     "No."
     "There is a certain wisdom, a certain strength, something like the
essence of the time that passes--that seeps into a man as he sleeps
between the stars.  I know, because I can feel it when I'm around
you."
     "No," I said.
     "Then maybe it's people expecting you to have the strength of
centuries that gives you something like it.  It was probably there to
begin with."
     "No."
     She chuckled.
     "It isn't exactly a positive sort of thing either."
     I laughed.
     "You asked me if I was going to run for office again this fall.
The answer is 'no'.  I'm planning on retiring.  I want to settle
down."
     "With anyone special?"
     "Yes, very special, Juss," she said, and she smiled at me and I
kissed her, but not for too long, because the ash was about to fall
off her cigarette and down the back of my neck.
     So we put both cigarettes out and drifted above the invisible
city, beneath a sky without a moon.

     I mentioned earlier that I would tell you about Stopovers.  If you are
going a distance of a hundred forty-five light years and are taking
maybe a hundred-fifty actual years to do it, why stop and stretch your
legs?
     Well, first of all and mainly, almost nobody sleeps out the whole
jaunt.  There are lots of little gadgets which require human
monitoring at all times.  No one is going to sit there for a
hundred-fifty years and watch them, all by himself.  So everyone takes
a turn or two, passengers included.  They are all briefed on what to
do til the doctor comes, and who to awaken and how to go about it,
should troubles crop up.  Then everyone takes a turn at guard mount
for a month or so, along with a few companions.  There are always
hundreds of people aboard, and after you've worked down through the
role you take it again from the top.  All sorts of mechanical agents
are backing them up, many of which they are unaware of (to protect
_against_ them, as well as _with_ them--in the improbable instance of
several oddballs getting together and deciding to open a window,
change course, murder passengers, or things like that), and the people
are well-screened and carefully matched up, so as to check and balance
each other as well as the machinery.  All of this because gadgets and
people both bear watching.
     After several turns at ship's guard, interspersed with periods of
cold sleep, you tend to grow claustrophobic and somewhat depressed.
Hence, when there is an available Stopover, it is utilized, to restore
mental equilibrium and to rearouse flagging animal spirits.  This also
serves the purpose of enriching the life and economy of the Stopover
world, by whatever information and activities you may have in you.
     Stopover, therefore, has become a traditional holiday on many
worlds, characterized by festivals and celebrations on some of the
smaller ones, and often by parades and world-wide broadcast interviews
and press conferences on those with greater populations.  I understand
that it is now pretty much the same on Earth, too, whenever colonial
visitors stop by.  In fact, one fairly unsuccessful young starlet,
Marilyn Austin, made a long voyage Out, stayed a few months, and
returned on the next vessel headed back.  After appearing on tri-dee a
couple times, sounding off about interstellar culture, and flashing
her white, white teeth, she picked up a flush contract, a third
husband, and her first big part in tapes.  All of which goes to show
the value of Stopovers.

     I landed us atop Helix, Betty's largest apartment-complex, wherein
Eleanor had her double-balconied corner suite, affording views both of
the distant Noble and of the lights of Posh Valley, Betty's
residential section.
     Eleanor prepared steaks, with baked potato, cooked corn,
beer--everything I liked.  I was happy and sated and such, and I stayed
till around midnight, making plans for our future.  Then I took a cab
back to Town Square, where I was parked.
     When I arrived, I thought I'd check with the Trouble Center just
to see how things were going.  So I entered the Hall, stamped my feet,
brushed off excess waters, hung my coat, and proceeded up the empty
hallway to the elevator.
     The elevator was too quiet.  They're supposed to rattle, you know?
They shouldn't sigh softly and have doors that open and close without
a sound.  So I walked around an embarrassing corner on my way to the
Trouble Center.
     It was a pose Rodin might have enjoyed working with.  All I can
say is that it's a good thing I stopped by when I did, rather than
five or ten minutes later.
     Chuck Fuller and Lottie, Eleanor's secretary, were practicing
mouth to mouth resuscitating and keeping the victim alive techniques,
there on the couch in the little alcove off to the side of the big
door to T.C.
     Chuck's back was to me, but Lottie spotted me over his shoulder,
and her eyes widened and she pushed him away.  He turned his head
quickly.
     "Juss..." he said.
     I nodded.
     "Just passing by," I told him.  "Thought I'd stop in to say hello
and take a look at the eyes."
     "Uh--everything's going real well," he said, stepping back into the
hallway.  "It's on auto right now, and I'm on my--uh, coffee break.
Lottie is on night duty, and she came by to--see if we had any reports
we needed typed. She had a dizzy spell, so we came out here where the
couch..."
     "Yeah, she looks a little--peaked," I said.  "There are smelling
salts and aspirins in the medicine chest."
     I walked on by into the Center, feeling awkward.
     Chuck followed me after a couple of minutes.  I was watching the
screens when he came up beside me.  Things appeared to be somewhat in
hand, though the rains were still moistening the one hundred thirty
views of Betty.
     "Uh, Juss," he said, "I didn't know you were coming by..."
     "Obviously."
     "What I'm getting at is--you won't report me, will you?"
     "No, I won't report you."
     "...And you wouldn't mention it to Cynthia, would you?"
     "Your extracurricular activities," I said, "are your own business.
As a friend, I suggest you do them on your own time and in a more
propitious location.  But it's already beginning to slip my mind.  I'm
sure I'll forget the whole thing in another minute."
     "Thanks Juss," he said.
     I nodded.
     "What's Weather Central have to say these days?" I asked, raising
the phone.
     He shook his head, so I dialed listened.
     "Bad," I said, hanging up.  "More wet to come."
     "Damn," he announced and lit a cigarette, his hands shaking.
"This weather's getting me down."
     "Me too," said I.  "I'm going to run now, because I want to get
home before it starts in bad again.  I'll probably be around tomorrow.
See you."
     "Night."
     I elevated back down, fetched my coat, and left.  I didn't see
Lottie anywhere about, but she probably was, waiting for me to go.
     I got to my car and was halfway home before the faucets came on
full again.  The sky was torn open with lightnings, and a sizzlecloud
stalked the city like a long-legged arachnid, forking down bright
limbs and leaving tracks of fire where it went.  I made it home in
another fifteen minutes, and the phenomenon was still in progress as I
entered the garage.  As I walked up the alley (cane switched on) I
could hear the distant sizzle and the rumble, and a steady half-light
filling the spaces between the buildings, from its
_flash-burn-flash-burn_striding.
     Inside, I listened to the thunder and the rain, and I watched the
apocalypse off in the distance.
     Delirium of city under storm--
     The buildings across the way were quite clear in the pulsing light
of the thing.  The lamps were turned off in my apartment so that I
could better appreciate the vision.  All of the shadows seemed
incredibly black and inky, lying right beside glowing stairways,
pediments, windowsills, balconies; and all of that which was
illuminated seemed to burn as though with an internal light.
Overhead, the living/not living insect-thing of fire stalked, and an
eye wearing a blue halo was moving across the tops of nearby
buildings.  The fires pulsed and the clouds burnt like the hills of
Gehenna; the thunders burbled and banged; and the white rain drilled
into the roadway which had erupted into a steaming lather.  Then a
_snapper_, tri-horned, wet-feathered, demon-faced, sword-tailed, and
green, raced from around a corner, a moment after I'd heard a sound
which I had thought to be a part of the thunder.  The creature ran, at
an incredible speed, along the smoky pavement.  The eye swooped after
it, adding a hail of lead to the falling raindrops.  Both vanished up
another street.  It had taken but an instant, but in that instant it
had resolved a question in my mind as to who should do the painting.
Not El Greco, not Blake; no: Bosch.  Without any question, Bosch--with
his nightmare visions of the streets of Hell.  He would be the one to
do justice to this moment of the storm.
     I watched until the sizzlecloud drew its legs up into itself, hung
like a burning cocoon, then died like an ember retreating into ash.
Suddenly, it was very dark and there was only the rain.

     Sunday was the day of chaos.
     Candles burned, churches burned, people drowned, beasts ran wild
in the streets (or swam there), houses were torn up by the roots and
bounced like paper boats along the waterways, the great wind came down
upon us, and after that the madness.
     I was not able to drive to Town Hall, so Eleanor sent her flyer
after me.
     The basement was filled with water, and the ground floor was like
Neptune's waiting room.  All previous high water marks had been
passed.
     We were in the middle of the worst storm in Betty's history.
     Operations had been transferred up onto the third floor.  There
was no way to stop things now.  It was just a matter of riding it out
and giving what relief we could.  I sat before my gallery and watched.
     It rained buckets, it rained vats; it rained swimming pools and
lakes and rivers.  For awhile it seemed that it rained oceans upon us.
This was partly because of the wind which came in from the gulf and
suddenly made it seem to rain sideways with the force of its blasts.
It began at about noon and was gone in a few hours, but when it left
our town was broken and bleeding.  Wyeth lay on his bronze side, the
flagpole was gone, there was no building without broken windows and
water inside, we were suddenly suffering lapses of electrical power,
and one of my eyes showed three panda-puppies devouring a dead child.
Cursing, I killed them across the rain and the distance.  Eleanor wept
at my side.  There was a report later of a pregnant woman who could
only deliver by Caesarean section, trapped on a hilltop with her
family, and in labor.  We were still trying to get through to her with
a flyer, but the winds...I saw burnt buildings and the corpses of
people and animals.  I saw half-buried cars and splintered homes.  I
saw waterfalls where there had been no waterfalls before.  I fired
many rounds that day, and not just at beasts from the forest.  Sixteen
of my eyes had been shot out by looters.  I hope that I never again
see some of the films I made that day.
     When the worst Sunday night in my life began, and the rains did
not cease, I knew the meaning of despair for the third time in my
life.
     Eleanor and I were in the Trouble Center.  The lights had just
gone out for the eighth time.  The rest of the staff was down on the
third floor.  We sat there in the dark without moving, without being
able to do a single thing to halt the course of chaos.  We couldn't
even watch it until the power came back on.
     So we talked.
     Whether it was for five minutes or an hour, I don't really know.
I remember telling her, though, about the girl buried on another
world, whose death had set me to running.  Two trips to two worlds and
I had broken my bond with the times.  But a hundred years of travel do
not bring a century of forgetfulness--not when you cheat time with the
_petite mort_ of the cold sleep.  Time's vengeance is memory, and
though for an age you plunder the eye of seeing and empty the ear of
sound, when you awaken your past is still with you.   The worst thing
to do then is to return to visit your wife's nameless grave in a
changed land, to come back as a stranger to the place you had made
your home.  You run again then, and after a time you _do_ forget,
some, because a certain amount of actual time must pass for you also.
But by then you are alone, all by yourself: completely alone.  That
was the _first_ time in my life that I knew the meaning of despair.  I
read, I worked, I drank, I whored, but came the morning after and I
was always me, by myself.  I jumped from world to world, hoping things
would be different, but with each change I was further away from all
the things I had known.
     Then another feeling gradually came upon me, and a really terrible
feeling it was: There _must_ be a time and a place best suited for
each person who has ever lived.  After the worst of my grief had left
me and I had come to terms with the vanished past, I wondered about a
man's place in time and space.  Where, and _when_ in the cosmos would
I most like to live out the balance of my days?  --To live at my
fullest potential?  The past _was_ dead, but perhaps a better time
waited on some as yet undiscovered world, waited at one yet-to-be
recorded moment in its history.  How could I _ever_ know?  How could I
ever be sure that my Golden Age did not lay but one more world away,
and that I might be struggling in a Dark Era while the Renaissance of
my days was but a ticket, a visa and a diary-page removed?  That was
my _second_ despair.  I did know the answer until I came to the Land
of the Swan.  I do not know why I loved you Eleanor, but I did, and
that was my answer.  Then the rains came.
     When the lights returned we sat there and smoked.  She had told me
of her husband, who had died a hero's death in time to save him from
the delirium tremors which would have ended his days.  Died as the
bravest die--not knowing why--because of a reflex, which after all had
been a part of him, a reflex which had made him cast himself into the
path of a pack of wolf-like creatures attacking the exploring party he
was with--off in that forest at the foot of Saint Stephen's--to fight
them with a machete and to be torn apart by them while his companions
fled to the camp, where they made a stand and saved themselves.  Such
is the essence of valor: an unthinking moment, a spark along the
spinal nerves, predetermined by the sum total of everything you have
ever done, wished to do or not to do, and wish you had done, or
hadn't, and then comes the pain.
     We watched the gallery on the wall.  Man is the reasoning animal?
Greater than beasts but less than angels?  Not the murderer I shot
that night.  He wasn't even the one who uses tools or buries his dead.
--Laughs, aspires, affirms?  I didn't see any of those going on.
--Watches himself watch himself doing what he knows is absurd?  Too
sophisticated.  He just did the absurd without watching.  Like running
back into a burning house after his favorite pipe and a can of
tobacco.  --Devises religions?  I saw people praying, but they weren't
devising.  They were making last-ditch efforts at saving themselves,
after they'd exhausted everything else they knew to do.  Reflex.
     The creature who loves?
     That's the only one I might not be able to gainsay.
     I saw a mother holding her daughter up on her shoulders while the
water swirled about her armpits, and the little girl was holding her
doll up above _her_ shoulders, in the same way.  But isn't that--the
love--a part of the total?  Of everything you have ever done, or
wished?  Positive or neg?  I know that it is what made me leave my
post, running, and what made me climb into Eleanor's flyer and what
made me fight my way through the storm and out to that particular
scene.
     I didn't get there in time.
     I shall never forget how glad I was that someone else did.  Johnny
Keams blinked his lights above me as he rose, and he radioed down:
     "It's all right.  They're okay.  Even the doll."
     "Good," I said, and headed back.
     As I set the ship down on its balcony landing, one figure came
toward me.  As I stepped down, a gun appeared in Chuck's hand.
     "I wouldn't kill you, Juss," he began, "but I'd wound you.  Face
the wall.  I'm taking the flyer."
     "Are you crazy?" I asked him.
     "I know what I'm doing.  I need it, Juss."
     "Well, if you need it, there it is.  You don't have to point a gun
at me.  I just got through needing it myself.  Take it."
     "Lottie and I both need it," he said.  "Turn around!"
     I turned toward the wall.
     "What do you mean?" I asked.
     "We're going away, together--now!"
     "You _are_ crazy," I said.  "This is no time..."
     "C'mon, Lottie," he called, and there was a rush of feet behind me
and I heard the flyer's door open.
     "Chuck!" I said.  "We need you now!  You can settle this thing
peacefully, in a week, in a month, after some order has been restored.
There _are_ such things as divorces, you know."
     "That won't get me off this world, Juss."
     "So how is _this_ going to help?"
     I turned, and I saw that he had picked up a large canvas bag from
somewhere and had it slung over his left shoulder, like Santa Claus.
     "Turn back around!  I don't want to shoot you," he warned.
     The suspicion came, grew stronger.
     "Chuck, have you been looting?" I asked him.
     "Turn around!"
     "All right, I'll turn around.  How far do you think you'll get?"
     "Far enough," he said.  "Far enough so that no one will find
us--and when the time comes, we'll leave this world."
     "No," I said.  "I don't think you will, because I know you."
     "We'll see."  His voice was further away then.
     I heard three rapid footsteps and the slamming of a door.  I
turned then, in time to see the flyer rising from the balcony.
     I watched it go.  I never saw either of them again.
     Inside, two men were unconscious on the floor.  It turned out that
they were not seriously hurt.  After I saw them cared for, I rejoined
Eleanor in the Tower.
     All that night did we wait, emptied, for morning.
     Somehow, it came.
     We sat and watched the light flow through the rain.  So much had
happened so quickly.  So many things had occurred during the past week
that we were unprepared for morning.
     It brought an end to the rains.
     A good wind came from out of the north and fought with the clouds,
like En-ki with the serpent Tiamat.  Suddenly, there was a canyon of
cobalt.
     A cloudquake shook the heavens and chasms of light opened across
its dark landscape.
     It was coming apart as we watched.
     I heard a cheer, and I croaked in unison with it as the sun
appeared.
     The good, warm, drying, beneficial sun drew the highest peak of
Saint Stephen's to its face and kissed both its cheeks.
     There was a crowd before each window.  I joined one and stared,
perhaps for ten minutes.

     When you awaken from a nightmare you do not normally find its ruins
lying about your bedroom.  This is one way of telling whether or not
something was only a bad dream, or whether or not you are really
awake.
     We walked the streets in great boots.  Mud was everywhere.  It was
in basements and in machinery and in sewers and in living room clothes
closets.  It was on buildings and on cars and on people and on the
branches of trees.  It was broken brown blisters drying and waiting to
be peeled off from clean tissue.  Swarms of skytoads rose into the air
when we approached, hovered like dragon-flies, returned to spoiling
food stores after we had passed.  Insects were having a heyday, too.
Betty would have to be deloused.  So many things were overturned or
fallen down, and half-buried in the brown Sargassos of the streets.
The dead had not yet been numbered.  The water still ran by, but
sluggish and foul.  A stench was beginning to rise across the city.
There were smashed-in store fronts and there was glass everywhere, and
bridges fallen down and holes in the streets...But why go on?  If you
don't get the picture by now, you never will.  It was the big morning
after, following a drunken party by the gods.  It is the lot of mortal
man always to clean up their leavings or be buried beneath them.
     So clean we did, but by noon Eleanor could no longer stand.  So I
took her home with me, because we were working down near the harbor
section and my place was nearer.
     That's almost the whole story--light to darkness to light--except
for the end, which I don't really know.  I'll tell you of its
beginning, though...

     I dropped her off at the head of the alleyway, and she went on toward
my apartment while I parked the car.  Why didn't I keep her with me?
I don't know.  Unless it was because the morning sun made the world
seem at peace, despite its filth.  Unless it was because I was in love
and the darkness was over, and the spirit of the night had surely
departed.
     I parked the car and started up the alley.  I was halfway before
the corner where I had met the org when I heard her cry out.
     I ran.  Fear gave me speed and strength and I ran to the corner
and turned it.
     The man had a bag, not unlike the one Chuck had carried away with
him, lying beside the puddle in which he stood.  He was going through
Eleanor's purse, and she lay on the ground--so still!--with blood on the
side of her head.
     I cursed and ran toward him, switching on my cane as I went.  He
turned, dropped her purse, and reached for the gun in his belt.
     We were about thirty feet apart, so I threw my cane.
     He drew his gun, pointed it at me, and my cane fell into the
puddle in which he stood.
     Flights of angels sang him to his rest, perhaps.
     She was breathing, so I got her inside and got hold of a doctor--I
don't remember how, not too clearly, anyway--and I waited and waited.
     She lived for another twelve hours and then she died.  She
recovered consciousness twice before they operated on her, and not
again after.  She didn't say anything.  She smiled at me once, and
went to sleep again.
     I don't know.
     Anything, really.
     It happened that I became Betty's mayor, to fill in until
November, to oversee the rebuilding.  I worked, I worked my head off,
and I left her bright and shiny, as I had found her.  I think I could
have won if I had run for the job that fall, but I did not want it.
     The Town Council overrode my objections and voted to erect a
statue of Godfrey Justin Holmes beside the statue of Eleanor Schirrer
which was to stand in the Square across from cleaned-up Wyeth.  I
guess it's out there now.
     I said that I would never return, but who knows?  In a couple of
years, after some more history has passed, I may revisit a Betty full
of strangers, if only to place a wreath at the foot of the one statue.
Who knows but that the entire continent may be steaming and clanking
and whirring with automation by then, and filled with people from
shore to shining shore?
     There was a Stopover at the end of the year and I waved goodbye
and climbed aboard and went away, anywhere.
     I went aboard and went away, to sleep again the cold sleep.
     Delirium of ship among stars--
     Years have passed, I suppose.  I'm not really counting them
anymore.  But I think of this thing often: Perhaps there _is_ a Golden
Age someplace, a Renaissance for me sometime, a special time
somewhere, somewhere but a ticket, a visa, a diary-page away.  I don't
know where or when.  Who does?  Where are all the rains of yesterday?
     In the invisible city?
     Inside me?
     It is cold and quiet outside and the horizon is infinity.  There
is no sense of movement.
     There is no moon, and the stars are very bright, like broken
diamonds, all.


Популярность: 36, Last-modified: Fri, 13 Nov 1998 17:57:47 GMT