I was truly shocked. I felt guilty. "No!" I said. "Oh, no! What a thing to do. You can't!"
"Now, now. Gently," they said. "What, after all, oh Fatherland, might be the perfectly natural consequences of your own act?"
"What? You mean under other--that is----"
"Exactly. You could very well have implanted a new life in her, which is all that we have done. Why should our doing so disturb you?"
Well, it did disturb me. But then, as they pointed out, they could have developed less pleasant methods of spreading colonies. They had merely decided that this approach would be the surest and simplest.
"Well, maybe," I told them, "but it still seems kind of sneaky to me. Besides, if you'd left it to me, I'd certainly never have picked a great big ox like Helga. And now she says she's going to marry me, too!"
"You do not wish this? We understand. Do not be concerned. We will--ah--send instructions to our people the next time. She will change her feelings about this."
She dropped the marriage bit completely.
We had what you might call an idyllic association, in spite of her being such a big, husky model--a fact which never bothered me when I was with her. "She is happy," I was assured, "very happy." She seemed pleased and contented enough, even if she developed, I thought, a sort of an inward look about her. She and I never discussed our--uh--people. We had a fast whirl for a couple of weeks. And then I'd quit my job with Uncle John, and we sort of drifted apart.
Next thing I heard of her, she married Uncle John.
Well. I have my doubts about how faithful a wife she was to him, but certainly she seemed to make him happy. And my government assured me Uncle John was not colonized. "Too late," they said. "He is too old to be worth the risk of settling." But they respected my scruples about my uncle's wife and direct communication with Helgaland was broken off.
But there were others.
For the next nine years--things came easy for me. I suppose the restrictions, the lack of freedom should have made me a lot more dissatisfied than I was. I know, though they didn't say so, that my people did a little manipulating of my moods by jiggering the glands and hormones or something. It must have been that with the women.
I know that after Helga I felt guilty about the whole thing. I wouldn't do it again. But then one afternoon I was painting that big amazon of a model and--Wow!
I couldn't help it. So, actually, I don't feel I should be blamed too much if, after the first couple of times, I quit trying to desert, so to speak.
And time went by, although you wouldn't have guessed it to look at me. I didn't age. My health was perfect. Well, there were a couple of very light headaches and a touch of fever, but that was only politics.
There were a couple of pretty tight elections which, of course, I followed fairly closely. After all, I had my vote, along with everyone else and I didn't want to waste it--even though, really, the political parties were pretty much the same and the elections were more questions of personality than anything else.
Then one afternoon I went to my broker's office to shift around a few investments according to plans worked out the night before. I gave my instructions. Old man Henry Schnable checked over the notes he had made.
"Now that's a funny thing," he said.
"You think I'm making a mistake?"
"Oh, no. You never have yet, so I don't suppose you are now. The funny thing is that your moves here are almost exactly the same as those another very unusual customer of mine gave me over the phone not an hour ago."
"Oh?" There was nothing very interesting about that. But, oddly enough, I was very interested.
"Yes. Miss Julia Reede. Only a child really, 21, but a brilliant girl. Possibly a genius. She comes from some little town up in the mountains. She has been in town here for just the past six months and her investments--well! Now I come to think about it, I believe they have very closely paralleled yours all along the line. Fabulously successful. You advising her?"
"Never heard of the girl."
"Well, you really should meet her, Mr. Barth. You two have so much in common, and such lovely investments. Why don't you wait around? Miss Reede is coming in to sign some papers this afternoon. You two should know each other."
He was right. We should know each other. I could feel it.
"Well, Henry," I said, "perhaps I will wait. I've got nothing else to do this afternoon."
That was a lie. I had plenty of things to do, including a date with the captain of a visiting women's track team from Finland. Strangely, my people and I were in full agreement on standing up the chesty Finn, let the javelins fall where they may.
Henry was surprised too. "You are going to wait for her? Uh. Well now, Mr. Barth, your reputation--ah--that is, she's only a child, you know, from the country."
The buzzer on his desk sounded. His secretary spoke up on the intercom. "Miss Reede is here."
Miss Reede came right on in the door without waiting for a further invitation.
We stood there gaping at each other. She was small, about 5'2" maybe, with short, black, curly hair, surface-cool green eyes with fire underneath, fresh, freckled nose, slim figure. Boyish? No. Not boyish.
I stared, taking in every little detail. Every little detail was perfect and--well, I can't begin to describe it. That was for me. I could feel it all through me, she was what I had been waiting for, dreaming of.
I made a quick call on the inside switchboard, determined to fight to override the veto I was sure was coming. I called.
For the first time, I got no regular answer. Of course, by now I always had a kind of a sense or feeling of what was going on. This time there was a feeling of a celebration, rejoicing, everybody on a holiday. Which was exactly the way I felt as I looked at the girl. No objections? Then why ask questions?
"Julia," old Henry Schnable was saying, "this is Mr. John Barth. John, this is--John! John, remember----"
I had reached out and taken the girl's hand. I tucked her arm in mine and she looked up at me with the light, the fire in the green depths swimming toward the surface. I didn't know what she saw in me--neither of us knew then--but the light was there, glowing. We walked together out of Henry Schnable's office.
"John! Julia, your papers! You have to sign----"
Business? We had business elsewhere, she and I.
"Where?" I asked her in the elevator. It was the first word either of us had spoken.
"My apartment," she said in a voice like a husky torch song. "It's close. The girl who rooms with me is spending the week back home with her folks. The show she was in closed. We can be alone."
We could. Five minutes in a cab and we were.
I never experienced anything remotely like it in all my life. I never will again.
And then there was the time afterwards, and then we knew.
It was late afternoon, turning to dusk. She lifted up on one elbow and half turned away from me to switch on the bedside lamp. The light came on and I looked down at her, lovingly, admiringly. Idly, I started to ask her, "How did you get those little scars on your leg there and ... those little scars? Like buckshot! Julia! Once, along about ten years ago--you must have been a little girl then--in the mountains--sure. You were hit by a meteor, weren't you??"
She turned and stared at me. I pointed at my own little pockmark scars.
"A meteor--about ten years ago!"
"I knew it. You were."
"'Some damn fool, crazy hunter,' was what Pop said. He thought it really was buckshot. So did I, at first. We all did. Of course about six months later I found out what it was but we--my little people and I--agreed there was no sense in my telling anyone. But you know."
It was the other ship. There were two in this sector, each controlled to colonize a person. My own group always hoped and believed the other ship might have landed safely. And now they knew.
We lay there, she and I, and we both checked internal communications. They were confused, not clear and precise as usual. It was a holiday in full swing. The glorious reunion! No one was working. No one was willing to put in a lot of time at the communications center talking to Julia and me. They were too busy talking to each other. I was right. The other ship.
Of course, since the other ship's landfall had been a little girl then, the early movements of the group had been restricted. Expansion was delayed. She grew up. She came to the city. Then--well, I didn't have to think about that.
We looked at each other, Julia and I. A doll she was in the first place and a doll she still was. And then on top of that was the feeling of community, of closeness coming from our people. There was a sympathy. The two of us were in the same fix. And it may be that there was a certain sense of jealousy and resentment too--like the feeling, say, between North and South America. How did we feel?
"I feel like a drink."
We said it together and laughed. Then we got up and got the drinks. I was glad to find that Julia's absent roommate, an actress, had a pretty fair bar stock.
We had a drink. We had another. And a third.
Maybe nobody at all was manning the inner duty stations. Or maybe they were visiting back and forth, both populations in a holiday mood. They figured this was a once in a millennium celebration and, for once, the limits were off. Even alcohol was welcome. That's a line of thought that kills plenty of people every day out on the highway.
We had a couple more in a reckless toast. I kissed Julia. She kissed me. Then we had some more drinks.
Naturally it hit us hard; we weren't used to it. But still we didn't stop drinking. The limits were off for the first time. Probably it would never happen again. This was our chance of a lifetime and there was a sort of desperation in it. We kept on drinking.
"Woosh," I said, finally, "wow. Let's have one more, wha' say? One more them--an' one more those."
She giggled. "Aroun' an aroun', whoop, whoop! Dizzy. Woozy. Oughta have cup coffee."
"Naw. Not coffee. Gonna have hangover. Take pill. Apsirin."
"Can-not! Can-not take pill. Won' lemme. 'Gains talla rules."
"Can. No rules. Rule soff. Can. Apsirin. C'mon."
Clinging to each other, we stumbled to the bathroom. Pills? The roommate must have been a real hypochondriac. She had rows and batteries of pills. I knocked a bottle off the cabinet shelf. Aspirin? Sure, fancy aspirin. Blue, special. I took a couple.
"Apsirin. See? Easy."
Her mouth made a little, red, round "O" of wonder. She took a couple.
"Gosh! Firs' time I c'd ever take a pill."
"Good. Have 'nother?"
It was crazy, sure. The two of us were drunk. But it was more than that. We were like a couple of wild, irresponsible kids, out of control and running wild through the pill boxes. We reeled around the bathroom, sampling pills and laughing.
"Here's nice bottla red ones."
There was a nice bottle of red ones. I fumbled the top off the bottle and spilled the bright red pills bouncing across the white tile bathroom floor. We dropped to our knees after them, after the red pills, the red dots, the red, fiery moons, spinning suddenly, whirling, twirling, racing across the white floor. And then it got dark. Dark, and darker and even the red, red moons faded away.
Some eons later, light began to come back and the red moons, dim now and pallid, whirled languidly across a white ceiling.
Someone said, "He's coming out of it, I think."
"Oh," I said. "Ugh!"
I didn't feel good. I'd almost forgotten what it was like, but I was sick. Awful. I didn't particularly want to look around but I did, eyes moving rustily in their sockets. There was a nurse and a doctor. They were standing by my bed in what was certainly a hospital.
"Don't ask," said the doctor. I wasn't going to. I didn't even care where I was, but he told me anyway, "You are in the South Side Hospital, Mr. Barth. You will be all right--which is a wonder, considering. Remarkable stamina! Please tell me, Mr. Barth, what kind of lunatic suicide pact was that?"
"Yes, Mr. Barth. Why couldn't you have settled for just one simple poison, hm-m? The lab has been swearing at you all day."
"Yes. At what we pumped from your stomach. And found in the girl's. Liquor, lots of that--but then, why aspirin? Barbiturates we expect. Roach pellets are not unusual. But aureomycin? Tranquilizers? Bufferin? Vitamin B complex, vitamin C--and, finally, half a dozen highly questionable contraceptive pills? Good Lord, man!"
"It was an accident. The girl--Julia----?"
"You are lucky. She wasn't."
"Yes, Mr. Barth. She is dead."
"Doctor, listen to me! It was an accident, I swear. We didn't know what we were doing. We were, well, celebrating."
"In the medicine cabinet, Mr. Barth? Queer place to be celebrating! Well, Mr. Barth, you must rest now. You have been through a lot. It was a near thing. The police will be in to see you later."
With this kindly word the doctor and his silently disapproving nurse filed out of the room.
The police? Julia, poor Julia--dead.
Now what? What should I do? I turned, as always, inward for advice and instructions. "Folks! Why didn't you stop me? Why did you let me do it? And now--what shall I do? Answer me, I say. Answer!"
There was only an emptiness. It was a hollow, aching sensation. It seemed to me I could hear my questions echoing inside me with a lonely sound.
I was alone. For the first time in nearly ten years, I was truly alone, with no one to turn to.
They were gone! At last, after all these years, they were gone. I was free again, truly free. It was glorious to be free--wasn't it?
The sheer joy of the thing brought a tightness to my throat, and I sniffled. I sniffled again. My nose was stuffy. The tightness in my throat grew tighter and became a pain.