Basil Wells, who lives in Pennsylvania, writes that he has been doing research concerning the keelboat age prior to and following the War of 1812 on the "locally famous section of portage-keelboat-rafting stream from Waterford down to Pittsburgh," turning from this to this grimmer future.
by BASIL WELLS
Then his hand caught an arm and he exerted his full strength. The entire arm tore away from its shoulder....
His fingers moved over the modest packet of bills the invisible rockhound had handed to him. He smiled through the eternal night that was his own personal hell. Duggan's Hades.
"Thanks, Pete," he said gratefully. "Here, have a box of Conmos."
His sensitized fingers found the cigars, handed over a box, and he heard the nervous scuff of the other's shoes.
"This eight thousand means I can see again—for a while at least. Take 'em! It's little enough."
"Look, Duggan. I get eight hundred for selling you the ticket on the breakthrough time. Keep the cigars. You need the dough."
Feet pounded, thumping into swift inaudibility along the 10th Level's yielding walkway. His fingers caressed the crisp notes that his lucky guess on the 80th Level's tunnel juncture had won for him, plus the ten dollars, that this meager business could ill afford, it had cost to join the rockhounds' pool....
But now he was free. His own man. He was released from the calculated economies of his wife. Janith knew to within a few dollars what his newsstand on the 10th Level should make. He had never been able to save the necessary thousand dollar deposit, and ten dollars an hour, that a rented super mech cost. And she would never listen to his pleas that he must see again—if only for an hour....
"Waste ten or twenty dollars for nothing," she would storm. "We have all your hospital bills to pay. I need new clothes. Your stock in the stands is too small."
What she left unspoken was the fact that she must secretly have hated his engineering career in the deep levels under Appalachia, and that she was dedicated to preventing his possible return....
After three years of blindness, under his wife's firm dominance, Duggan felt only hate for her. With this sudden fortune he could be independent. He could divorce her. He could rent a super mech—even return to work in the ever-deepening levels of Appalachia City!
First of all he must see again.
He closed up the news-and-cigar stand. With his cane's sensitive radar button pulsating beneath his fingers he hurried along the walkway toward the nearest super mech showroom. It was less than three blocks....
* * * * *
"Be sure that all the contacts are against the skull and neck," the salesman was saying, his voice muffled by the mentrol hood covering Duggan's head and shoulders.
"Of course." Duggan's impatience made his voice shrill. "I've used mentrols before when inspecting cave-ins and such."
"Very well, sir." The man's voice was relieved. Probably he hated his job as much as Duggan hated his cigars and news.
Duggan tripped the switches and heard the building hum of power. An odd sort of vibration that his mind told him was purely emotional, seemed to be permeating his whole body.
Abruptly the transition was complete. He was no longer lying on the padded bench beneath the mentrol hood. He was standing erect, conscious of the retaining clamps that held him upright.
He gulped a deep draught of air into the artificial lungs that did not need oxygen and his mechanical pulse quickened.
His eyes slitted open, drinking in by degrees the mirrored mentrol booth and the pallid, fat, little man sitting beside his hooded body. He stepped out of the clamps, his sharpened senses aware of softness, and hardness, and scent, and color that human weakness so often blurs.
This super mech that was linked directly with his brain by twin mentrols was tall, chunky and gray of eye and hair. In a general way it was a duplicate of his own body, but there was no facial resemblance.
"How do you like it, sir?" The fat smile was empty, almost apologetic. "We have younger, more handsome models...."
"Well enough." Duggan started donning the clothing that he had removed. "I'll want the mech for five, possibly ten, hours."
"I'll make out the slip for ten hours, sir. We'll refund any balance due you. But after ten hours ..."
"I know. You must report the mech missing. But with my body here you can't lose."
The salesman smiled enigmatically. "We have," he said.
Duggan shrugged. He was impatient to be outside, feasting his starved vision on the stores and parks of the various upper levels. He might even take a lift to the Outside. It had been fifteen years ago, while their youngest son was a baby, that they had taken a weekend motor trip to the great scar that had been Manhattan. He remembered the vastness and the rawness of the uncontrolled atmosphere. It had been beautiful but also a bit terrifying. It was a ten years delayed honeymoon....
And now Merle was in the rocket corps and Janith and he were like strangers.
Duggan zippered shut his gray-checked jacket and left the booth. He walked slowly, savoring every picture of the crowded passenger strips beyond the walkway, and of the fairy spans of moving walkways crossing the travel strips. The soft glow of the level's ceiling, fifty feet above, illuminated the double rows of apartment and store fronts.
It was good to see again.
Every twelfth section of the level was a park. The greenery was fresher and brighter than he remembered; the tree boles and the branches were marvels of grace and strength. He strolled along the paths, impatient to be moving on, but aching with the emerald beauty around him....
He took the lifts to the upper levels. He rode the swiftest walkways and travel strips, his eyes drinking in the long-hidden sights. From an observation dome he looked out over the wooded mountain slopes of Outside, and saw the telltale ridging of rock and earth that marked the scores of hidden vehicular tubes linking Appalachia with its sister cities of Ondack and Smoky.
His five hours stretched into seven, and then, eight. Slowly a determination to keep these eyes, at whatever cost, was building within him. Always before he had agreed when Janith decided. He had been so dependent on her those first terrible weeks. But now, with this money from the breakthrough pool, he could rent a super mech—live as a man should live!
* * * * *
Duggan left the employment booth on the 20th Level, a badge on his jacket and a half-grin on his full super mech's lips.
On the records he was now Al Duggan, a second cousin from Montana. He knew that nothing in the world could bring Al further east than Ozarka. Just to be safe, however, he decided to drop Al a line to explain.
As far as his wife was concerned Merle Duggan was gone. Dead and buried. She could get a divorce if she wanted and marry that podgy, pink-skulled boss of hers at the advertising agency....
"Five hundred a month," Duggan told himself. "Two-fifty for the rental, fifty for insurance—maybe fifty or so for spare parts—that leaves about a hundred and fifty for me."
He was starting at the bottom as a rock hog, a mucker, a clean-up man in the newly opened 80th Level. And his wages were the minimum union scale.
He took the lift down to the 79th Level, flashed his new badge at the guards, and took the gritty freight lift to the lowest level of the sprawling metropolis....
"You Gaines Short?" he asked the lanky man bent over the littered desk in the rough plastic bubble that served as an office.
Sharp black eyes studied him—noted the bright new olive badge, and the creased, obviously new, coveralls.
"You're the new rock hog?"
"Yes, sir. Al Duggan."
"Montana—mining. Had some engineering. Worked in Ozarka on tunnels."
The lank man nodded, expressionless.
"You'll hog for a while. Later we'll see.... Any relation to the Duggan we lost a couple of years back?"
"Tough he couldn't see his way clear to try again." Short's lips thinned. "He may snap out of it yet.... We could use a few more like him."
"I—I'll talk with him," promised Duggan.
He fought back the words that wanted to pour out. Whether it was a strange sense of loyalty to his wife, or a stubborn sort of pride, he could not bring himself to speak ill of her.
"A super mech is not so bad, Duggan." Short flexed a skinny arm. "I've worn this one since a rock slide crushed my back."
"Yes, sir," Duggan agreed.
Short scribbled on a form, handed it to Duggan.
"Take this down to Ted Rusche, he's the short, dark fellow bossing the rock hogs. He'll see you're issued your tools."
Duggan nodded and turned away.
* * * * *
In the super mech hostel, on the 79th Level, Duggan shared a compartment of six sleeping and mentrol plates. All of the others were rockhounds, and three of them worked in his own clean-up gang. His immediate pusher, Ted Rusche, was a legless, dark and hairy man, much like his working super mech. Waide and Myham, the first tall and once-handsome, and the latter, bony and scarred, were both paralytics.
Duggan's share of the attendants' salary amounted to another fifty dollars monthly. He was not growing too wealthy!
"And how do you like it after three weeks, Al?" Rusche demanded from where he balanced on the cushioned sleeping plate.
Duggan stretched cramped limbs and turned his sightless face toward Rusche's voice.
"Seems good to be working again, Ted," he said.
"This's your last day with us, Al. Orders from Short. He's transferring you. Office work I guess, or maybe he's making you a foreman."
Rusche's voice was curious.
"He musta found out something about you, Al. S'funny but you look awful familiar to me too. And you know more about tunnels than you let on. How about leveling with a guy?"
"Not now." Duggan was thinking of the other listening men. "After we've cleaned-up and eaten. See you in the park outside the hostel."
Duggan's thoughts were muddled. Fingerprints probably; at every super mech hostel all guests were printed and taped, and possibly through his similar name. Short must have been suspicious from the first. And if he had come to the hostel to see Duggan's mentrol-hooded face, while Duggan worked, his identification must have been sure.
Short knew that he was Merle Duggan, and before too long Janith, and all his friends—if he had any left now—would know he had been in hiding here.
He hurried to eat and get ready for another period under the mentrol's hooded probes.
Less than half an hour later he strode out of the hostel, his super mech gleaming and clean and his jacket and shorts newly pressed. He met Rusche in the park and they headed for the lift to the upper level.
En route to the 10th Level he explained.
"I thought you looked like somebody I should know." Rusche scrubbed at his pseudo beard's coarseness. "Accident left you sort of psychoed, huh? So you was scared of the levels? Had to try coming back with a false name?"
Duggan gulped. It made a believable sort of yarn. He hadn't taken time to concoct a story.... Why not?
"Something like that. I guess I was badly shook, Ted."
"So now you go back to being engineer at a thousand or so, and I'm still a rock hog." Rusche shrugged. "Less headaches anyhow."
They stepped off the lift at the 10th Level and took the high speed strip toward the business section. Duggan had it in his mind to see Janith and tell her she had failed—that he was his own man again. She would be at the office. He would tell her off, and leave. And then he'd show Rusche some of the high spots of the low-number levels of Appalachia.
The darkness came about them swiftly. To Duggan it was like a return to the nightmare of sightlessness. Under their feet the racing strip faltered and stalled. They were thrown off their feet and sprawled on the fiber-ribbed squares of the checkerboarded way's surface.
"What is it?" demanded Rusche.
He fought back the panic. This was not true blindness.
"Criminals. They set off a few dozen 'midnight' bombs and try to rob banks or stores. We get these attacks quite often."
"Emergency ventilation will clear it out in a couple of minutes. And the Squads will have them in half an hour. They never get very far."
They sat close together, to wait. From the walkways and stalled strips shrieks and frightened cries sounded. The sounds seemed to increase from behind them.
"This's my first time above the Twentieth Level," Rusche confided. "Thirty-five years and I never saw the Outside. I don't think I like it up this high."
"It will be over in a little while, Ted. Probably just a group of teen-agers looking for thrills." He laughed drily. "They'll end up with blanked memories and new faces like those who tried before them."
"Listen," muttered Rusche.
In the lightlessness, and above the wailing of the terrified people about them, they could hear the scuff of running feet. They were coming closer at a swift pace. In a moment the runners would collide with them!
* * * * *
Duggan's years of blindness had given him the ability to judge and gauge distance from sound. At the proper instant he pounced, his hands clamping around a body, and a second body crashed into the leader. They went down in a tangle.
He heard Rusche shouting and fists battering and the tinkle of metal or crystal on metal. He was fighting desperately, his super mech's strength overtaxed. The unseen man's hands tore at his neck and shoulder, ripping away the synthetic flesh and baring the complex framework beneath.
Then his hand caught an arm and he exerted the full strength of his mech power, until now carefully subdued. The entire arm tore away from its shoulder. And yet the wounded man continued to attack.
It was only then that he realized this must be a super mech. The criminals must have stolen one or two super mechs and were using them in this robbery.
He was ruthless, then. He wrenched away the other arm. He battered at the unseen torso. The feet of the desperate mech smashed at his knees and thighs, staggering him. Then he bore the armless torso of the mech backward and fell upon it.
The mech went limp, its mentrols blanked by the distant criminal who controlled it.
Duggan came to his feet, listening for the sound of battle between Rusche and his captive. It came from his right, faintly. About ten feet distant, he judged it. And now the emergency vents were clearing the darkness from the travel strips. Twilight faded and vision replaced it.
Rusche was sitting astride a prone body, and even as Duggan reached his side the struggling criminal's arms and legs went limp. Rusche grunted and started to stand.
"A super mech!" he said. He rubbed thoughtfully at his disarranged nose and cheeks, smoothing them again into their normal contours. "What about yours?"
"Here's their loot, anyhow," Rusche said, holding up a small gray plastine bag.
"Drop it, Ted. We better fade out of here before the Squads arrive, too. They might think we're—"
"Not on your life, Al. We should get a reward. Pics on the newswires and tapes."
Duggan shrugged and smoothed at his own neck and face. Four red-uniformed men, their heads hidden by ovoid gas helmets, came hissing toward them along the travel strip. They rode single-wheeled cycles and their rapid-fire expoders were trained on them.
"Careful now, Ted. Let me do the talking. They like to use paralysis needles and question later."
"I've lived up here."
The unicycles braked to a halt.
"Step over here, slow," ordered one of the Squadmen.
Duggan obeyed, careful to keep his arms rigid. Of course paralysis needles would cause this mech body no damage, but why make trouble? They had more destructive weapons.
"Ran into us," he said mildly. "We figured something wrong—honest men would be standing where they were. We stopped them."
The four members of the Squad were inspecting the damage.
"I guess you did," one of them said, admiringly. "You must be super mechs too?"
"That's right. I'm Duggan, Al—Merle Duggan, and this is my friend, Ted Rusche. We work on the 80th Level—rockhounds."
"Duggan?" The man's voice was suddenly strained. "Maybe you're not so clear as you pretend. A woman got in the way by accident, supposedly, of their getaway from the bank. Her name was Duggan too."
Duggan started forward, remembered the ugly expoder muzzles and backed away.
"Was her name Janith?" he demanded.
"Radio report didn't say. Contact them, Joe," he told one of the other faceless men.
"Couldn't be you hired these two to kill her and pretend the robbery?" he inquired.
"Of course not."
One of the Squad mumbled something. Duggan's interrogator dropped his weapon's muzzle.
"Woman twisted her ankle trying to get out of the way, and fell. Received a cut on her temple and is being taken to the hospital. Accidental all right."
"But her name."
Duggan felt a strange mingling of anger and of tenderness. The anger was directed toward the criminals.
"Could I go to her now? Rusche can fill you in on details."
"It's not—oh, all right. Regulations aren't too strict on these levels. She your sister?"
"Wife." He turned to Rusche.
"See you at the lift in about an hour," he said and headed for the advertising agency where Janith was employed.
* * * * *
"We haven't been informed as to her whereabouts yet, Mr. Duggan," the receptionist at Duffey's offices said coldly.
Duggan glared down into the carefully pretty face, the solar-lamp tan and the knife-smoothed wrinkles.
"Now see here, Blanche," he said, and spluttered impotently.
"See here yourself, Merle Duggan," the woman spat back sharply. "After all! You come running back just because she's hurt. Why didn't you come back like this a year ago?"
"I was with her a year ago."
"That wasn't you. You didn't have guts enough to rent a super mech and go back to your old job." The woman laughed. "Janith tried to insult and needle you into being a man again. And you just crawled."
"That's a lie," Duggan cried. "I begged her to let me go back. She wouldn't listen."
"That's what you say now. You don't want to remember. I know. I was here all the time. Many a time Janith has come to the office, crying, and told me how hopeless it seemed."
"You're—you're inventing all this, Blanche," he accused.
"I wish I were. Remember, Merle. Think. Be honest with yourself." Blanche put her nervous, blue-veined hand on his arm. A detached part of his brain noted how bony and brittle her hand was.
"She's loved you all these years, Merle." The tiny hand dug into his jacket sleeve. "To make you well again she risked losing your love—and she lost."
Blanche must be all of fifty, perhaps fifty-five, the analytical portion of his mind noted. Old-maidish in many ways, despite her five ex-husbands; yet so sentimental—
"It's all part of her scheme. Pretend to be the patient, long-suffering wife and then secretly forbid me to go back to the deep levels again! You don't know!"
The woman's tired eyes sparkled green. Her little fist cracked against his chest. She turned half away from him.
"But I do know. I sat up with you many nights, while Janith got a few hours of rest. You were like a baby, slobbering and whimpering in your sleep. The days were worse. You were drunk and shouting and weeping. To you blindness was the end."
Merle gulped. He could remember nothing of the sort. Only the accident and awakening in the hospital to darkness.... But there was a strange blankness, a hiatus in his memories, that ended with his hated job in the cigar stand. He could not recall his first day there or—
Could Blanche be telling the truth?
"You—spiteful old hag!" he shouted at her, and rushed out of the offices.
His feet pounded at the yielding softness of the walkway. The hospital was less than two blocks distant—no need to take a travel strip—and he needed the automatic motion of walking to steady his thoughts.
The forgotten months. Four months, or was it five months, ago, he was in the cigar-and-news stand. That was the day when an old acquaintance from the lower levels sold him the chance on the 80th Level's breakthrough.
That night he had begged Janith to let him rent a super mech. And she had scoffed at his wastefulness. Yet, now that he remembered it again, there had been a wistful note of hope in her voice.
Could she have been trying to fan his faint desire for sight into something more powerful and consuming—so he would become again the engineering Duggan he had been?
He had surrendered then, as he did many times afterward. Sullenly, yes, but he had surrendered. Perhaps she knew he was not ready for sight. When he refused to obey her, when he insisted on hiring a super mech—then, perhaps, she would know the cure was complete.
But that was only theory. He remembered her clearly expressed hatred for the mucking, lower-level life of a rockhound. Always his hatred for her grew as she spoke of his work....
She had never expressed herself in that way before the accident. She had gone with him on many exploratory trips into the caverns that the lower levels of Appalachia cut across. And she had enjoyed the experience—he was sure of that.
Remember! Think back. Back before the cigars and papers. Back to the days and months after the accident. It hurt to think. His temples, here on the mentrol-hooded sleeping plate, were pounding irregularly....
Huddling in a bed, knees drawn up and head tucked in, trying to gain somehow the safety that an infant once knew. Janith's voice, soft and understanding, and the acid of panic that set his lips to mumbling meaningless jargon....
Why had Janith not sent him to the medical centers for mental clearing and re-education as was done with all cases of psychoed abnormals? The answer was with him. She loved him as he was, Merle Duggan—not as a new personality in her husband's body.
Artificial amnesia automatically dissolves all marriage partnerships. She had not wanted that. Instead she had three years of hell....
Striking out at emptiness, his fists contacting soft flesh, and the pained cry, swiftly suppressed, of Janith. His voice, cursing and high-pitched, as he fought the straps that now were restraining his sightless body. The bite of a needle and gradual dissolution of feeling....
Memory was coming reluctantly back to Duggan. This was not the self-imagined visionings of an abused helpless man. These memories were true. He had fought against all mental therapy and turned from those who loved him.
Now the hospital entrance was before him. He paused for a moment and then went inside. The automatic hush of the door shutting out the muted street sounds was all too familiar.
"Mrs. Janith Duggan," he told the crisply white woman at the desk.
"Room 212, second floor."
* * * * *
He used the steps in preference to the lift. He needed more time to think—would he ever find enough time?
Undoubtedly, now, Janith's love for him was dead. His desertion of her must have finished the dissolution of their marriage. It had been cowardly—he should have faced her and declared what he was going to do and what she could do.
These past weeks, working with the rock hogs, had been invaluable. They had restored something of his self-esteem.
The second floor. Pastel bare walls and soft voices. The odors. 208 and opposite, 209. A wheelchair, propelled by a timidly smiling white-haired woman. He nodded automatically.
210. What could he say to her? That he was sorry she was hurt and that he was such a fool? And then back to the super mech hostel and the five other cripples who shared the room?
212. The door ajar. A private room. He was glad of that. The headache was more violent now—there was a bitter taste in his mouth as his super mech entered the room.
She was alone, looking tiny and helpless on the high bed. To him, after three years, she was more beautiful than he remembered, even though the pure whiteness of her once-graying hair startled him.
"Janith," he said uncertainly.
She turned her head, curiosity in her expression, and then understanding came. There was no mistaking the warmth and welcome that came into her eyes. She held out her arms.
"Duggy," she commanded, "come here."
And he knew then, without ever being told, that his revolt and flight had all been part of the therapy, and Janith had known all the time where he had been....
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe September 1957. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.