The day was mild and sunny, but Hargate felt cold, irritable and generally ill at ease as a result of having slept on the train. Taking advantage of the fresh charge in the wheelchair’s battery, he bowled his way out of the 10th Street station at an inconsiderate speed which led to several near-collisions with pedestrians. He turned south in the direction of the Dutchess County clinic.
He considered spending the extra time sunning himself in the plaza outside the clinic, but groups of employees were already drifting out to spend early lunch breaks in the open. Staying there would involve him in a series of mimed skirmishes with strangers who showed too much curiosity about his condition, and after the long train journey he was too tired to face the daily battle with the rest of the human race. He decided to go straight up to Doctor Foerster’s office and see if Vince Debrou was on reception duty. Debrou, possibly because of his work, was one of the few who knew how to respond to Hargate in a totally natural manner and Hargate liked talking to him. There was also the possibility that Debrou had obtained some new orders. He rolled into the shabby redbrick building and took an elevator to the ninth floor, scowling over an increase in the surcharge.
“Hi, Denny,” Debrou said, when he entered the outer office. “Congratulations!”
Hargate, who had expected to find at least six other patients waiting in the reception area, glanced around the empty room in some surprise. “Congratulations? Have I just got myself engaged or pregnant?”
“Come on, Denny, you know what I mean.” Debrou, who was a pale young man with a permanently corrugated forehead and weightlifter’s shoulders, went on sorting through a pile of X-ray slides on his desk.
“I have no idea what you mean,” Hargate said, his impatience increasing the nasal quality of his voice. “If I had any idea what you mean I would say so, but I have no idea what you mean and that’s why I’m asking you to tell me what you mean.”
“I thought they…” Debrou paused, eyeing him intently. “The doc’s down in the canteen—how about a coffee while you’re waiting?”
“What if I tell your boss you’ve been talking out of turn?”
Debrou shrugged. “For starters—you lose out on the coffee.”
“Cream, but no sugar,” Hargate said resignedly. He nodded his thanks as Debrou handed him a plastic cup and, without needing to be asked, a square of absorbent tissue. Within the last year the polyneuritis had serriously affected his palate, a weakness which—as well as imparting the nasal timbre to his voice—caused him to regurgitate fluids through his nose during the act of swallowing. As a rule he only drank when alone, except when he was deliberately setting out to embarrass somebody, but his rapport with Debrou was something special. He drank the warmish coffee, snorting and dabbing his nostrils after each mouthful, and decided against pursuing the reasons for his visit. It was a minor mystery which would soon be resolved. He nodded in the direction of the small abstract sculpture which glowed on a shelf behind Debrou.
“I haven’t heard much from you recently,” he said. “Nothing doing?”
Debrou shook his head. “A couple of people showed some interest last week. Leastways, they were interested till they heard the price. Nobody can afford handmade stuff these days, Denny.”
“Are you telling me?” His coffee finished, Hargate sat with the tissue pressed to his nose and stared moodily at the sculpture, a sample of his work which Debrou displayed for him on a purely unofficial basis for a commission on orders received. It was a symbol of the lasting effects—both mental and physical—that the strange fleeting encounter on Cotter’s Edge had had on his life. For several months after that unique day, each time circumstances had seemed intolerable he had hidden in his room and tried to escape by tracing talismanic signs in the air.
Later he had discovered in himself a genuine talent for mathematics, and had been subtly astonished to find that—far from expunging the remnants of his belief—the new field of learning had shown him undreamt-of ways of correlating the Cotter’s Edge experience with the mundane world. His attitudes, reactions and noughts were both complex and vague, but they sprang from one clear-cut, even simplistic, idea. The gesture which had preceded the s disappearance had been made up of curves, and curves were embodiments of algebraic formulae, therefore there could be a link between mathematics and “magic”. After a brief and disappoint, ing excursion into numerology, he had become fascinated with the construction of mathematical models, a pursuit which—purely as a by-product—had solved the problem of how to supplement his state disability allowance.
During that period, although illness had continued to make inroads into his system—eventually confining him to a wheelchair—he had retained virtually the full use of his arms and hands. Kay Hargate, ever on the look-out for a wink from divine providence, had persuaded herself that the remission could be permanent and had even managed, at times, to begin treating him as an independent adult. For more than ten years Hargate had known something akin to happiness, then his mother had died—swept away with frightening suddenness in a minor outbreak of food poisoning—and soon afterwards had come the first chest pains and black-outs, fresh intimations of his own mortality.
He had continued his solitary existence in the same ground-floor apartment in Green ways, reading a lot—usually mathematical treatises—and working whenever he felt strong enough. And in visions he returned again and again to Cotter’s Edge, striding towards the maple-plumed ridge on legs that were limber and strong, breathing the bright air of an April morning and exulting in the certain knowledge that she was there, waiting for him, and that this time he would get it right …
“Hey, Denny!?” Vince Debrou had half-risen from his chair in his efforts to interrupt Hargate’s reverie. “I said the doc’s back early. Want me to tell him you’re here?”
“No, let it be our special secret,” Hargate said, angry at himself for having wandered into dreamland.
“Funny man.” Debrou flipped an intercom tab and within thirty seconds Hargate was rolling into the high-windowed inner office. Doctor Foerster was a broad-faced, balding man of fifty with weathered skin and large, work-roughened hands which were clues to the fact that he was passionately fond of sailing. He welcomed Hargate with a handshake, returned to his desk and dropped into the chair with a near-destructive impact.
“I’m sorry about asking you to come in at the lunch hour,” he said, “but I wanted some extra time with you and this was the only way I could get it.”
Hargate quelled a spasm of unease. “I’ve got all day.”
“Yeah, but I’m not so fortunate.” Foerster picked a speck of lint from his grey tweed jacket and examined it carefully before dropping it on the floor. “How are your arms, Denny?”
“Everything still works.”
“Put them straight out sideways.”
Hargate did as instructed, all the while trying to read Foerster’s expression. “Like this?”
“Now wiggle your fingers,” the doctor said, glancing down at his wrist watch.
In less than a minute Hargate’s shoulder muscles were desperately tired, but he strove not to give any indication. “Would you mind telling me what’s…?”
“Just keep wiggling,” Foerster said, concentrating on his watch. “You’re doing very well.”
Deciding he was being treated as something less than human, Hargate promptly lowered his arms and returned his hands to his lap. His fingers tingled painfully.
Foerster eyed him with evident surprise. “Why did you stop?”
“I have no interest in manpowered flight,” Hargate said stonily, meeting the doctor’s gaze. “And I’m not auditioning for Swan Lake.”
Foerster’s lips twitched. “It says in your file that you’re ill-adjusted and inclined to be anti-social and uncooperative.”
“Is that another way of saying I’m not overawed by white coats and stethoscopes?”
“Probably,” Foerster said, smiling ruefully. “I’m sorry about the drill-sergeant routine, but it was a quick way of making sure you were still capable of doing a day’s work.”
“Why? Have you got me a job?”
Surprisingly, Foerster nodded. “A spare place has become available in a Government research centre, and I’m pretty sure it’s yours you want it. There’s just one drawback—at least, most people would call it a drawback.”
Hargate leaned forward, intrigued, sensing that the doctor had withheld something important. “Which is…?”
“It’s in the space colony.”
“In the…?” Hargate blinked once, twice, thinking about the twlight sadness of his solitary apartment in which lately it had become impossible to refrain from counting off his diminishing store of minutes and seconds. “So what’s the drawback?”
The single Aristotle space habitat, completed in 2021, had been built in the form of a cone—a shape which provided environ-ments with differing gravities.
Among those benefiting from the conical configuration had been medical researchers, who were grateful for the opportunity to study the effect of low-gravity conditions on patients with certain types of cardiac trouble. They had been given their own facilities in the 0.3G and 0.5G bands on condition that all patients who were fit enough would accept jobs in the zero-gravity production areas.
That proviso, as far as Hargate was concerned, was a bonus rather than a penalty. Foerster had carefully avoided promising too much, but it seemed there was a strong likelihood that residence in the 0.3G suite would increase Hargate’s life expectancy by at least a factor of three. The new prospect of an entire decade of life stretching out before him was a fantastic luxury, but it would have lost some of its savour had there been nothing to do other than take medical tests and in between times stare at blank walls. In weightless conditions, though, he would be almost as mobile as an able-bodied person, every bit as capable of earning a living, of paying his way. And he had a craving, more insistent than that of any drug addict, for the blessed knowledge that he was putting more into the system than he was taking out.
Independence, here I come! The thought ran through Hargate’s mind like a fugue, partially inuring him to the final indignities that Earth had to offer. He had wheeled out on to the concrete apron forty minutes earlier, part of a mixed payload of passengers and cargo that the orbital flier was due to carry aloft. The hump-backed craft, with canopies and hatches upraised like wing casings, resembled a huge red-and-white insect which had been captured by ants. It lay brooding on its booster platform, every detail highlighted by the intense Florida sun, sweating oil and water and other fluids Hargate was unable to identify.
The men carrying out the loading operation were KSC ground crew, not airline staff, and Hargate sensed they had divided the payload into three categories, with a descending order of priority—equipment packages, people who could walk, and people who could not walk. As the sole representative of the third cateory, he had sat morosely, his lungs labouring with the hot and humid air of the Cape, while the equipment had been loaded and secured, while seats had been custom fitted in the remaining floor areas, and while the walking passengers had been shepherded up the long ramp and installed in their places.
Sensitive to the curious scrutinies of nearby workers, Hargate kept his eyes on the flat, steamy horizons of the Florida water-world and tried to think thoughts appropriate to his last minutes on Earth. The task proved to be beyond his capabilities. He was too hot and too tired, and—above all—he now had to acknowledge that he was deeply afraid of the journey that lay ahead. It had been easy to be nonchalant in Foerster’s office and during the subsequent three weeks of preparation for the flight, but now the future and the present had somehow drawn together, and the reality of his situation was daunting, overwhelming. He, who had never flown in a plane, who could not even walk, was proposing to venture into the black, alien and hostile infinity which waited beyond the atmosphere. The notion was preposterous, something he had been tricked into, and nobody could really blame him if—even at this late stage—he were to let his commonsense reassert itself.
“Sorry about the delay, Mr Hargate.” The young supervisor who approached him was carrying a clipboard and had symmetrical sweat patches on his blue shirt, like the markings of a badger. “I expect you’re pretty tired waiting.”
“It’s all right,” Hargate said, choosing a degree of sarcasm he knew would go unnoticed. “I’ve been taking things easy.”
“That’s just great.” The supervisor frowned as he inspected Hargate’s wheelchair. “What sort of batteries do you have in there?”
“I don’t know. Battery-type batteries.”
“Did anybody fit you out with zero-G units, Mr Hargate? We don’t want blobs of electrolyte floating around the cabin when you’re in free fall.”
Hargate shook his head. “These are my regulars.”
The supervisor’s lips moved silently as he jotted something down on his board. “They’ve gotta come out. I’ll notify Aristotle and they’ll have a new set ready when you get up there. Okay?”
Hargate, who had been praying that he would be allowed to drive his chair up the ramp, digested the knowledge that he would have to be carried on to the flier like a babe-in-arms. For an instant he was tempted to engage the chair’s drive and flee in search of a hiding place, then it came to him that he would be doing the opposite of escaping. As long as he remained on Earth, within the grip of his home planet’s gravity, other people would have to carry him—physically sometimes, metaphorically every minute of every day—until the end of his life.
“It won’t take long to strip the batteries out,” the supervisor went on. “In the meantime, we’ll get you into the ship, Mr Hargate. One of the men will carry you—if you don’t mind.”
“So be it,” Hargate said ungraciously. “But just make sure the guy who carries me is straight—I don’t want anybody having a free grope.”
Finally, it was time for the transfer to Earth.
High Instructor Tabalth walked with Gretana to the circular courtyard at the heart of the building which had been her home for almost fifty days. The noontime heat had collected there like an invisible fluid in a dish, imparting a drowsiness to the atmosphere, causing the blue patterns of the central mosaic to ripple slightly as though under a film of water. All sounds were strangely muted. Gretana could feel the multiplicity of major skord-lines converging at the spot, interfering with the normal properties of space and time.