Professor John Crowley, once head of the history department at Stanford, now the nominal leader of the colony, sat with Flannery and Jean Dobbs, examining the suppurating arm of a ten-year-old boy. “Radiation,” Crowley was saying emphatically. “The overall level is rising daily. It’s settling ash that does it. If we don’t get out soon, we’re done.”
“It’s not radiation,” Flannery corrected in his ultimately certain voice. “It’s toxic crystalline poisoning; that stuff’s knee-deep up in the hills. He’s been playing around up there.”
“Is that so?” Jean Dobbs demanded. The boy nodded his head not daring to look at her. “You’re right,” she said to Flannery.
“Put some salve on it,” Flannery said. “And hope he’ll live. Outside of sulfathiazole there’s not much we have.” He glanced at his watch, suddenly tense. “Unless she brings the penicillin, today.”
“If she doesn’t bring it today,” Crowley said, “she’ll never bring it. This is the last load; as soon as it’s stored, we’re taking off.”
Rubbing his hands, Flannery suddenly bellowed: “Then get out the money!”
Crowley grinned. “Right.” He fumbled in one of the steel storage lockers and yanked out a handful of paper bills. Holding a sheaf of bills up to Tellman he fanned them out invitingly. “Take your pick. Take them all.”
Nervously, Tellman said, “Be careful with that. She’s probably raised the price on everything, again.”
“We’ve got plenty.” Flannery took some and stuffed it into a partly filled load being wheeled by, on its way to the ship. “There’s money blowing all over the world, along with the ash and particles of bone. On Venus we won’t need it—she might as well have it all.”
On Venus, Tellman thought, savagely, things would revert to their legitimate order—with Flannery digging sewers where he belonged. “What’s she bringing mostly?” he asked Crowley and Jean Dobbs, ignoring Flannery. “What’s the last load made up of?”
“Comic books,” Flannery said dreamily, wiping perspiration from his balding forehead; he was a lean, tall, dark-haired young man. “And harmonicas.”
Crowley winked at him. “Uke picks, so we can lie in our hammocks all day, strumming ‘Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah.’ ”
“And swizzle sticks,” Flannery reminded him. “In order that we may all the more properly flatten the bubbles of our vintage ‘38 champagne.”
Tellman boiled. “You degenerate!”
Crowley and Flannery roared with laughter, and Tellman stalked off, smoldering under this new humiliation. What kind of morons and lunatics were they? Joking at a time like this … He peered miserably, almost accusingly, at the ship. Was this the kind of world they were going to found?
In the pitiless white-hot sun, the huge ship shimmered and glowed. A vast upright tube of alloy and protective fiber mesh rising up above the tumble of wretched shacks. One more load, and they were off. One more truckful of supplies from their only source, the meager trickle of uncontaminated goods that meant the difference between life and death.
Praying that nothing would go wrong, Tellman turned to await the arrival of Mrs. Edna Berthelson and her battered red pickup truck. Their fragile umbilical cord, connecting them with the opulent, undamaged past.
On both sides of the road lay groves of lush apricot trees. Bees and flies buzzed sleepily among the rotting fruit scattered over the soil; every now and then a roadside stand appeared, operated by somnambulistic children. In driveways stood parked Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Rural dogs wandered here and there. At one intersection stood a swank tavern, its neon sign blinking on and off, ghostly pale in the midmorning sun.
Mrs. Edna Berthelson glared hostilely at the tavern, and at the cars parked around it. City people were moving out into the valley, cutting down the old oak trees, the ancient fruit orchards, setting up suburban homes, stopping in the middle of the day for a whiskey sour and then driving cheerfully on. Driving at seventy-five miles an hour in their swept-back Chryslers. A column of cars that had piled up behind her truck suddenly burst forth and swung past her. She let them go, stony-faced, indifferent. Served them right for being in such a hurry. If she always hurried like that, she would never have had time to pay attention to that odd ability she had found in her introspective, lonely drives; never have discovered that she could look “ahead,” never have discovered that hole in the warp of time which enabled her to trade so easily at her own exorbitant prices. Let them hurry if they wanted. The heavy load in the back of the truck jogged rhythmically. The motor wheezed. Against the back window a half-dead fly buzzed.
Jackie lay stretched out among the cartons and boxes, enjoying the ride, gazing complacently at the apricot trees and cars. Against the hot sky the peak of Mount Diablo rose, blue and white, an expanse of cold rock. Trails of mist clung to the peak; Mount Diablo went a long way up. He made a face at a dog standing indolently at the side of the road, waiting to cross. He waved gaily at a Pacific Telephone Co. repairman, stringing wire from a huge reel.
Abruptly the truck turned off the state highway and onto a black surfaced side road. Now there were fewer cars. The truck began to climb … the rich orchards fell behind and gave way to flat brown fields. A dilapidated farmhouse lay to the right; he watched it with interest, wondering how old it was. When it was out of sight, no other man-made structures followed. The fields became unkempt. Broken, sagging fences were visible occasionally. Tom signs, no longer legible. The truck was approaching the base of Mount Diablo … almost nobody came this way.
Idly, the boy wondered why Mrs. Berthelson’s little trip took her in this direction. Nobody lived here; suddenly there were no fields, only scrub grass and bushes, wild countryside, the tumbled slope of the mountain. A rabbit hopped skillfully across the half-decayed road. Rolling hills, a broad expanse of trees and strewn boulders … there was nothing here but a state fire tower, and maybe a watershed. And an abandoned picnic area, once maintained by the state, now forgotten.
An edge of fear touched the boy. No customers lived out this way … he had been positive the battered red pickup truck would head directly into town, take him and the load to San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley, a city where he could get out and run around, see interesting sights. There was nothing here, only abandoned emptiness, silent and foreboding. In the shadow of the mountain, the air was chill. He shivered. All at once he wished he hadn’t come.
Mrs. Berthelson slowed the truck and shifted noisily into low. With a roar and an explosive belch of exhaust gases, the truck crept up a steep ascent, among jagged boulders, ominous and sharp. Somewhere far off a bird cried shrilly; Jackie listened to its thin sounds echoing dismally away and wondered how he could attract his grandmother’s attention. It would be nice to be in front, in the cabin. It would be nice—
And then he noticed it. At first he didn’t believe it … but he had to believe it.
Under him, the truck was beginning to fade away.
It faded slowly, almost imperceptibly. Dimmer and dimmer the truck grew; its rusty red sides became gray, then colorless. The black road was visible underneath. In wild panic, the boy clutched at the piles of boxes. His hands passed through them; he was riding precariously on an uneven sea of dim shapes, among almost invisible phantoms.
He lurched and slid down. Now—hideously—he was suspended momentarily halfway through the truck, just above the tail pipe. Groping desperately, he struggled to catch hold of the boxes directly above him. “Help!” he shouted. His voice echoed around him; it was the only sound … the roar of the truck was fading. For a moment he clutched at the retreating shape of the truck; then, gently, gradually, the last image of the truck faded, and with a sickening crunch, the boy dropped to the road.
The impact sent him rolling into the dry weeds beyond the drainage ditch. Stunned, dazed with disbelief and pain, he lay gasping, trying feebly to pull himself up. There was only silence; the truck, Mrs. Berthelson, had vanished. He was totally alone. He closed his eyes and lay back, stupefied with fright.
Sometime later, probably not much later, he was aroused by the squeal of brakes. A dirty, orange state maintenance truck had lurched to a stop; two men in khaki work clothes were climbing down and hurrying over.
“What’s the matter?” one yelled at him. They grabbed him up, faces serious and alarmed. “What are you doing here?”
“Fell,” he muttered. “Off the truck.”
‘What truck?” they demanded. “How?”
He couldn’t tell them. All he knew was that Mrs. Berthelson had gone. He hadn’t made it, after all. Once again, she was making her trip alone. He would never know where she went; he would never find out who her customers were.
Gripping the steering wheel of the truck, Mrs. Berthelson was conscious that the transition had taken place. Vaguely, she was aware that the rolling brown fields, rocks and green scrub bushes had faded out. The first time she had gone “ahead” she had found the old truck floundering in a sea of black ash. She had been so excited by her discovery that day that she had neglected to “scan” conditions on the other side of the hole. She had known there were customers … and dashed headlong through the warp to get there first. She smiled complacently … she needn’t have hurried, there was no competition here. In fact, the customers were so eager to deal with her, they had done virtually everything in their power to make things easier for her.
The men had built a crude strip of road out into the ash, a sort of wooden platform onto which the truck now rolled. She had learned the exact moment to “go ahead”; it was the instant that the truck passed the drainage culvert a quarter mile inside the state park. Here, “ahead,” the culvert also existed … but there was little left of it, only a vague jumble of shattered stone. And the road was utterly buried. Under the wheels of the truck the rough boards thumped and banged. It would be bad if she had a flat tire … but some of them could fix it. They were always working; one little additional task wouldn’t make much difference. She could see them, now; they stood at the end of the wooden platform, waiting impatiently for her. Beyond them was their jumble of crude, smelly shacks, and beyond that, their ship.
A lot she cared about their ship. She knew what it was: stolen army property. Setting her bony hand rigidly around the gearshift knob, she threw the truck into neutral and coasted to a stop. As the men approached, she began pulling on the hand brake.
“Afternoon,” Professor Crowley muttered, his eyes sharp and keen as he peered eagerly into the back of the truck.
Mrs. Berthelson grunted a noncommittal answer. She didn’t like any of them … dirty men, smelling of sweat and fear, their bodies and clothes streaked with grime, and the ancient coating of desperation that never seemed to leave them. Like awed, pitiful children they clustered around the truck, poking hopefully at the packages, already beginning to pluck them out onto the black ground.
“Here now,” she said sharply. “You leave those alone.”
Their hands darted back as if seared. Mrs. Berthelson sternly climbed from the truck, grabbed up her inventory sheet and plodded up to Crowley.
“You just wait,” she told him. “Those have to be checked off.”
He nodded, glanced at Masterson, licked his dry lips, and waited. They all waited. It had always been that way; they knew, and she knew, that there was no other way they could get their supplies. And if they didn’t get their supplies, their food and medicine and clothing and instruments and tools and raw materials, they wouldn’t be able to leave in their ship.
In this world, in the “ahead,” such things didn’t exist. At least, not so anybody could use them. A cursory glance had told her that; she could see the ruin with her own eyes. They hadn’t taken very good care of their world. They had wasted it all, turned it into black ash and ruin. Well, it was their business, not hers.
She had never been much interested in the relationship between their world and hers. She was content to know that both existed, and that she could go from one to the other and back. And she was the only one who knew how. Several times, people from this world, members of this group, had tried to go “back there” with her. It had always failed. As she made the transition, they were left behind. It was her power, her faculty. Not a shared faculty—she was glad of that. And for a person in business, quite a valuable faculty.
“All right,” she said crisply. Standing where she could keep her eye on them, she began checking off each box as it was carried from the truck. Her routine was exact and certain; it was part of her life. As long as she could remember she had transacted business in a distinct way. Her father had taught her how to live in a business world; she had learned his stem principles and rules. She was following them now.
Flannery and Patricia Shelby stood together at one side; Flannery held the money, payment for the delivery. “Well,” he said, under his breath, “now we can tell her to go leap in the river.”
“Are you sure?” Pat asked nervously.
“The last load’s here.” Flannery grinned starkly and ran a trembling hand through his thinning black hair. “Now we can get rolling. With this stuff, the ship’s crammed to the gills. We may even have to sit down and eat some of that now.” He indicated a bulging pasteboard carton of groceries. “Bacon, eggs, milk, real coffee. Maybe we won’t shove it in deep-freeze. Maybe we ought to have a last-meal-before-the-flight orgy.”
Wistfully, Pat said, “It would be nice. It’s been a long time since we’ve had food like that.”
Masterson strode over. “Let’s kill her and boil her in a big kettle. Skinny old witch—she might make good soup.”
“In the oven,” Flannery corrected. “Some gingerbread, to take along with us.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” Pat said apprehensively. “She’s so—well, maybe she is a witch. I mean, maybe that’s what witches were … old women with strange talents. Like her—being able to pass through time.”