Authors: Kenneth Johnson
Tags: #Science Fiction
He abandoned the stairs and wandered forlornly across the cement, looking over at the shuttles for some sign of someone he could talk to. He was even beginning to consider disobeying orders and asking directions in his native language (though that would definitely be a last-resort tactic), if he could find another of his people. He rounded a series of cylindrical containers that appeared to be used as repositories for waste (a notion which puzzled him-why simply store waste? It was a valuable energy source).
Ahead of him he saw several larger transports parked, and made his way toward them. His back ached, and, to his distress, he realized he was beginning to feel hungry. He would not be able to eat until after his shift, back in his quarters. Those were the rules.
He trudged around to the nose of one of the transports, peering at the vehicle. Nobody inside. He turned, growing ever more frustrated, conscious now that he was very late for his work shift. Everyone said that Steven, who was in charge of operations here, was someone to avoid angering. What was he going to do?
Turning, he saw a human standing behind him. The blue dress and the rounded protuberances beneath the front of it told him this one was female. Her hair was dark gold and blew around her head in fluffy profusion. Her eyes were almost exactly the same color as her planet's lower atmospheric regions in favorable weather conditions. She smiled-William was quite sure that was what she was doing, and was also sure, although why he couldn't say, that he vastly preferred this expression to the one Taylor had treated him to.
"I am just," he told her simply. "Yeah?" She cocked her head inquiringly. "What?" "Just," William repeated as clearly and meaningfully as he could. Her smile faded slightly. "Just ... just?" William had the distinct impression he wasn't communicating properly. "Yes. Just." She frowned-though not in the same way Taylor had. "Just what?"
Her hand caught his sleeve-the first time he'd ever been touched by a person from another world. "Now wait," she was saying, and William struggled to comprehend her quick, easy speech. "Don't let it get you spazzed. I'll help you out."
William seized with gratitude on the one word he recognized. "Yes, help. Help to go. To this place." He showed her the English translation printed above the concept blocks of his own language. "I am just."
She scanned the card quickly, then turned to him, plainly guessing. "You don't know where to go?" "Yes," agreed William fervently. "I'm just."
Lost! The word linked in his memory, and relief flooded him. William nodded eagerly, putting the cryo unit down. "Lost! Yes, lost." He peered at her through his glasses, and for some reason risked the morning glare to take them off so he could see her more clearly. "Thank you . . . " He fumbled to explain. "English ... not well to me. Learned Arabic ... for going there."
"Well, L.A.'s not so bad. Beats Fresno, lemme tell you. What's your name?" "Ah-" he began, then remembered. "William."
"Well, hi. I'm Harmy." She smiled. "That's short for Harmony ... can you believe it? I work here." She shifted the tray she was carrying, which was littered with empty paper cups and plates. "Food service, y'know." She scanned the card he held out. "Cryo-Cryogenics Transfer Unit. Well, c'mon, Willy. Let's go find it."
William tried to match her expression to show his gratitude. Smiling wasn't as hard as it looked. They wended their way through the maze of pipes and holding tanks, each with attendants and gauges, until they looked upward at a series of catwalks spanning a huge pressure unit.
William looked upward, to see a dark face he remembered, wearing a disgusted expression he knew, looking back at him. The man wearing a hardhat and business suit supplied, "Caleb Taylor is one of our best men. Caleb, meet William."
JULIET PARRISH LOOKED UP TO SEE RUDOLPH METZ ENTER THE door of the laboratory, with Ruth only a pace behind him, looking upset. Juliet guessed quickly what the problem was. "Don't tell me they've canceled again!"
Doctor Metz nodded. "Yes. We've been asked to be patient. Their scientists have been too busy setting up the processing at the plants to finish their introductory presentations for us. I just spoke to Vasily Andropov, who was chosen for the Soviet team, and he told me in confidence that their team's visit has been postponed too!"
Ruth shook her head disgustedly. "They didn't. 'A week or two' was the only thing we could get out of the Visitor who delivered the message. His name was Martin, and he seemed genuinely sorry, but he said Diana had personally given the order to postpone."
"Damn!" Juliet stared morosely at one of the rat cages. "Everybody else is going up there! Did you hear that they're even giving kids special visits to the Mother Ships if they join up with this youth organization they're sponsoring? They call it the Visitor Friends."
Doctor Metz nodded heavily. "I heard Kristine Walsh's broadcast earlier. Still, we mustn't be too disappointed. We must remember that the Visitors' primary reason for being here is the production of their chemical. Giving seminars for us is merely a courtesy."
ROBERT MAXWELL UNLOCKED THE DOOR TO ARCH QUINTON'S Office, then stood in the doorway for a moment, his eyes roving its familiar features. The "current" box was empty. Frowning, he opened several file cabinets, searching with quick, impatient movements, then, frustrated, slammed the gray drawer back into its casing with a bang.
Reaching for the phone, he dialed quickly. "Kathy? Let me talk to Robin for a second."
He listened intently for a moment. "No, I've been trying to reach him. Nobody's seen him today. I called his landlady-he didn't come home last night, as far as she knows. He called about midnight last night, and spoke to my daughter. Said he was working late."
Absently, he began searching Quinton's top desk drawer, then lifted the blotter and peered underneath it. "Listen, Officer-Robeson, did you say? Have you checked with the L.A. police? Any sign of his car?"
The door gave easily beneath his hand-not locked. He reached out, past the steering column, then moved away with Quinton's worn leather-tab key ring in his hand. There was an odd smell hanging about the automobile that sickened and repelled Maxwell, making the fear mounting in the back of his throat turn to nausea.
His eyes turned to the door. The handle on the driver's side hung askew, and an oily black stain marred the red vinyl. Maxwell realized he was shaking with deep tremors that twisted his gut. His heart seemed to be directly between his ears, throbbing.
Putting out an unsteady hand, Robert touched fingertips to the stain, then sniffed them cautiously. Bile flooded his mouth, and if his stomach hadn't been empty, he'd have vomited. He spat on the cement, then spat again, then leaned back against the Granada's rear door, feeling dizzy, emptied.
"This Quinton's car?" "Yes, it is. I found his keys in the ignition."
"Sorry." Maxwell's shock was turning to grief now, a paralyzing sense of certainty that he'd never see Arch again. He tried to think rationally, convince himself that Quinton would have called to explain everything by the time he got back inside, called Kathy, but he couldn't.
"I'm all right," Maxwell said, untruthfully. "This is weird," Robeson said. "You got any idea what might have happened to him?"
THE AFTERNOON SUN SLANTED THROUGH AND SPATTERED ITSELF IN a yellow haze against the oyster-white wall of Kristine Walsh's Los Angeles loft apartment. Mike Donovan sat on the sofa, checking and packing his camera equipment. Kristine, in bra and half-slip, was in the other room, putting on her makeup. Her monologue was broken into uneven bursts of speech and pauses as she squinted in the mirror, daubing carefully at her eyes and mouth.
.. and then Diana said that she was pleased with the progress at the Richland plant. Said it was representative of all the others around the world." She widened her eyes, touching sable mascara to her lashes in quick brushing gestures.
"Yes. She said they'll be beginning them shortly." Donovan made a rude noise. "That's what they said the other time."
"But wait, Mike, I haven't told you the best part." Kristine tilted her head, examining her blusher critically. "Then Diana said, 'The other thing I'm pleased with here, Kristine, is you.' I didn't know what to say, what she was getting at, you know. Then she explained that of all the journalists they've met since they've been here, the Visitors feel most comfortable with me. She said, `Our research also shows that your people have a lot of confidence in you. You're trusted and respected ... attractive-' "
"Huh?" "Or press secretary ... She said I could call it what I wanted. Which do you like?"
Donovan looked over at her. "What about your objectivity?" "What?" Notebook, she thought, tape recorder ... lipstick ... where's my pen?
Mike's tone was hard, one she'd only heard a few times before-usually when someone asked him a question about his divorce. "Don't you think you're compromising your objectivity by sucking up to those-"