"I'm glad I found you. I lost my wife to the patrol some time back."
"I've never been anyone's wife before. There was Frank, but I was never really what you could call his wife, exactly."
"Many people ever stay with your folks?"
"Not many. Frank only stayed a few days. I liked him. I wanted to go with him."
"Why didn't you?"
She broke off a blade of grass and slowly began tearing it into strips, intently gazing at it. "He just left suddenly without taking me. I guess he thought I was just a stupid brat. That was maybe two or three years ago." Her voice sounded as if she were smiling a little. Nelson thought that strange.
"You ever think much about the sleepers?" he asked suddenly.
"Sometimes. I wonder what it's like in their dreams."
"They like it in their dreams. Those dreams are built for them. They get along happily in their world, grateful for it. That's the word, grateful." He listened for a moment to nightsounds. "But they're helpless. If anything happens, they're asleep and unable to act. If they wake up, they're in a world they don't know how to live in."
"If you were a sleeper, what kind of world would you want to dream about?"
"I don't want to be a sleeper."
"Yes, but if you were. Would you live in a castle?"
He thought on it for the first time. "I don't know," he said finally. "I don't think so. I think I'd travel. Go out to the stars. There's a whole universe out there. Men went out there; they're still out there. I guess they've forgotten us."
"You think they'll ever come back?"
"Some day I think somebody from out there will come back and land on Earth to see what it's like. Maybe they'll try to invade us. We'd be pretty helpless with most of us asleep in our pipe-dream utopias."
"I wouldn't like to be caught and put in a dream," she said. "But I'd like to live in a castle." Nelson gazed at her. She had never known a commune, he realized. If she had, she would have bred when told to and then docilely filed away to her coffin. But she had never been indoctrinated. If she went into the dreams, it would be against her will. But he had to admit that he had some reservations....
He moved close to her.
"Maybe some day we can live in a castle. Or go into space to some planet where men live in castles." He stared at the stars. "Out there they must be like gods," he said and his voice sounded strange, even to him.
He looked down at Glynnis. The moonlight was full on her face; she looked fit to be a goddess to those gods, he thought. She was staring off and around at the wilderness; she was saying, "Out here there's trees. And air. I like to look at the trees." He reached over and pulled her face around to him and kissed her. She was startled, but returned the kiss warmly.
She pulled away just far enough to look into his face. She was smiling. "I think I like you better than I did Frank," she said.
Nelson lay awake for a few moments, trying to identify the noise. It was a low humming sound off in the distance. He could feel Glynnis, breathing evenly with sleep beside him. The sky was just beginning to color with sunrise in the east. As quietly as possible, Nelson eased himself erect, still trying to place the noise. He placed it, and realized that he had not really wanted to identify it.
"Quiet," he said as he roused the girl. She opened her eyes wide, and stared at him, confused and uncomprehending.
"Hear that noise?"
"Yes," she said after a second.
"One of their search machines. Probably they've adopted a loose search pattern, or maybe we left some kind of sign somewhere. It's not coming closer, but we'd better get out of here."
They ate hastily, in the awakening light of sunrise. They ran away from the sound of the machine, and it lessened in the distance.
It was the middle of the morning when they heard it again. Nelson judged it to be roughly a mile away and to the west. He waited a minute, listening. It seemed to be describing a search pattern curve that swung in front of their path. He decided to double back and around to miss it.
The undergrowth was thick in this part of the forest. They made their way through the bushes and waist-high grasses, being as careful as possible not to leave too many signs of their passing. Glynnis' shorts and thin blouse weren't much protection against the thorns or the recoiling limbs of bushes but she didn't complain. Gradually the forest became mostly trees again. They found a path some animal had made and followed it.
When they came to the clearing, Nelson almost didn't see the thing in the air. He heard Glynnis gasp behind him, and with a start, glanced around. She was staring at something in front of them, and in the air. He looked where she was staring and saw the air robot hovering near the edge of the clearing. It was about two feet long, slender, metallic and smooth. Nelson knew though that it was alert and that receptors built into its skin were registering their presence. It hovered about ten feet above the ground, some twenty feet from them, making no noise. Sky robots made noise only when they were moving at a fairly good speed. They had fled the noise of one only to be trapped in the silence of another.
Suddenly, Glynnis was shouting, "It's one of them!" Nelson turned to see her level her gun, and before he could stop her a white hot streamer lashed out at the robot and engulfed it.
"No," he shouted, too late. The machine took the blast turning cherry red and bobbing lightly in the air for a moment before energy compensators and stabilizers adjusted to the effects of the blast. The machine turned back to its lustrous silver color and there was a low hum as it righted itself gracefully then swung around, into the center of the clearing to get a better focus on them.
"It doesn't even have a mark on it," Glynnis said, in a low tone, moving closer to Nelson and laying one hand on his shoulder.
"No. But don't worry; it can't hurt us. We've got to figure some way to get out of here and leave it behind." He turned and gently guided her toward the trees. When they were in the dubious shelter of the trees, Nelson stopped and tried to figure a way out. He could see the machine hanging in the center of the clearing on invisible lines of force, turning slightly to find them in the dense growth, then, with one end pointed at them, bobbing slightly with the low breeze.
"What's it doing?" Glynnis asked. There was superstitious awe in her voice that annoyed Nelson.
"Sending a signal to the patrol. We don't have much time before they get here."
"But if the machine can't be shot down what can we do?"
"Hand me your gun." He took her gun and pointed to a vernier control set into the side of the weapon. "This is the intensity control; it's on low." He turned it up. "Now it's on full."
"Will that stop the machine?"
"Not by itself. But if we both move in, blasting together, again and again we might do it some damage."
"All right," she said, taking the gun.
Nelson led the way into the clearing. The machine moved back a little and bobbed to keep them in alignment. Nelson felt the dryness of his throat as he raised his gun to aim at the incurious machine. "All set?" he asked. From the corner of his eye he could see that Glynnis had raised her gun and was sighting.
"All set," she answered.
"O.K." Nelson fired. His blast hit the robot head on. It was absorbed, but almost as soon as it had died down, Glynnis fired. Nelson fired again, catching the machine in an almost steady stream of white hot energy. The machine suddenly caught on to what they were doing. It tried to escape their range by going up, but they followed it. By this time the compensators were already beginning to fail. Haywire instruments jerked the machine back down and then side to side, then into a tree trunk, blindly. It rebounded and dipped low, almost touching the ground before it curved back up. Some of Glynnis' shots were missing, but Nelson made every shot count, even while the robot was darting about wildly.
The machine was glowing cherry red, now, some twelve feet off the ground, unable to rise further, one end pointed sharply upward. Something inside it began screaming, loudly, shrilly, with a vibration that hurt Nelson's teeth. Nelson was firing mechanically. The machine's loud screaming stopped suddenly. Nelson checked his fire. Glynnis fired once more, missing as the machine suddenly dropped about a foot. For perhaps a second the machine remained motionless. Then it died without sound, and fell to the ground, landing with a dull noise and setting fire to the grass under and around it.
For that matter, they had started a major forest fire with their blastings. The trees across the clearing from them were already roaring with flames. Nelson didn't wait to check on the machine. He grabbed Glynnis and pulled her around toward the way they had come. She stumbled, staring back at the machine.
"Come on!" he said, in agitation. She came to life, mechanically, and let him propel her along. The wind was away from them, but the fire growing. They ran madly until they had to stop and fall exhausted to the ground. When he could breathe again without torturing his lungs, Nelson looked back and saw the smoke from the fire in the distance behind them. They were safe from the fire, but their escape was cut off by it. It would, he knew with dull certainty, attract attention.
When he had rested as long as he dared, he said, "We'd better get going."
"I'm not sure I can," she said.
"Well, you've got to. If we stay here, we'll be caught."
They did not pause to eat. It was about midday when they encountered the robot and they walked well into the afternoon, their only purpose being to put as much distance between them and the place where they had shot the robot down as possible. Nelson found himself moving numbly, blindly uncaring of anything by making progress forward. He listened to the humming of an approaching robot for a long while before it registered on his consciousness.
He whirled, drawing his gun, momentarily giving way to the panic that had been threatening to engulf him all afternoon. He saw the machine, high above the trees behind them, safely out of range, he knew. Bitterly, he fought down the urge to fire the gun anyway. It took a tremendous exertion of will to make his arm return the gun to its holster.
"What can we do?" asked Glynnis, a slight quaver in her voice.
"Not a thing," said Nelson; then, almost in a rage he cried it. "Not one damned thing!"
They both turned back the way they had been going and ran, hoping to find some cover with which to duck the machine. Nelson converted his rage and fear into a strength he had never known he could call upon. He ran on, and Glynnis behind him. And he knew that she, like he, ran despite the rawness in her throat and lungs and cramping of her legs. The only thing he could think of was that he wanted to enter a mausoleum not as a prisoner, but as the head of an army.
He ran blindly, hearing nothing but the machine and his own rasping breath. Then suddenly, he was stumbling over the edge of an embankment, flailing his arms and twisting himself around so that he managed to land on his back. It hurt and the wind went out of him. He was sliding and rolling. Somehow he managed to stop himself. He lay painfully coughing and trying to get his breath. Below him he could see the wild rushing of a river at the base of the sheer embankment. He looked back up. Glynnis had one leg over the edge but had not fallen. Nelson crawled his way back up the slope.
They were trapped by the river. It must be another part of the same river they had spent the night by, thought Nelson. But where it had been calm and shallow, it was now a raging torrential river where brown, churning waters ran between high, difficult to climb cliffs.
There was no need for either of them to speak. They began looking for a place to cross the river. All the time they searched they could hear the machine behind them, above them, humming safely out of their range.
The sun was low in the sky when they heard the second humming. The humming grew until it was a throbbing that covered the weaker sound of the robot and chilled Nelson.
"The patrol," he said, pushing the girl toward the forest. "Back into the trees. We're going to have to fight it out with them."
They ran into the trees. The throbbing stopped and behind them, Nelson could hear the sounds made by men thrashing through the undergrowth. His palms were wet; he wiped them on his shirt front. The impending contact with the patrol gave him a calmness as always, and he picked out a thicket where he believed he could make some sort of stand.
He reached the thicket with Glynnis behind him. Her gun was out. He signed to her to lower the intensity of the gun; she caught on. He watched her face. It was like a mask.
Nelson listened to the sounds of the approaching patrolmen. Five or six, he decided. Plus a guard back at the flier. He'd figure on eight, in all, he decided. Then the first one showed behind some bushes.
Nelson touched Glynnis' arm in a signal to wait. The patrolman looked around, searching too intensely to find anything. He was young. Nelson didn't think he would uncover their whereabouts and for a moment debated letting him pass.
But he didn't want to be surrounded. He pulled his gun up and sighted carefully before squeezing the trigger. In the tenth of a second before the patrolman burst into flames, the blast produced a blast circle that grew to the size of a basketball in his midsection. The patrolman fell without screaming.
The others were there now. Most of them were young and two rushed forward at the sight of their companion's death, to die like heroes. The others wisely sought cover. Nelson decided that the thicket wasn't as safe as he'd hoped. One of the patrolmen was doing a good job with an energizer, coming closer with each shot, before Nelson finally saw where he was, and fired at him. Nelson saw the trunk of a large fallen tree and pointed to it for Glynnis' benefit. She nodded.
There was cover most of the way. Nelson went first, crouching low to the ground and running with the ease of a cat. He made the log and began firing to cover Glynnis. He saw her coming, out of the corner of his eye, then concentrated on covering her with firepower. Suddenly the girl let out a startled yell and he saw her sprawl to the ground, tripping over a root. He called her name and without thinking leaped to his feet to run to help her. He was halfway there when the patrolman came into range. Nelson realized what he had done. Glynnis was already on her feet and running. Cursing himself, Nelson jerked his gun around, but it was too late. An energizer blast exploded the ground beneath him and he felt himself hurtling over backwards. He could only see blackness and the bright, quick, flashing of pin-point light in it. Then, he was falling, spinning....
Patrol Cadet Wallace Sherman watched the man on the table with mixed feelings; on the one hand, there was pity for a man whose condition was hopeless, and on the other there were the misgivings that come with guarding a criminal. Perhaps it was Sherman's youth that caused him to emphasize those misgivings and move his hand toward his sidearm when the man stirred.
But the man on the table only stirred a little and groaned. Sherman was not sure whether or not the man was coming to. He shouldn't be, Sherman knew. He took a couple of steps forward and starred at the man's face.
The man was breathing normally. His head moved slightly but his eyes were still closed. His face was the palest, softest looking face Sherman had ever seen. It was the face of a man who had never known sunlight, Sherman thought somberly; or at least had not known it in many years. He wondered, vaguely just what kind of life the man dreamed he had. As he was watching the man's face, Sherman saw his lips move and heard him utter something he could not make out. He bent closer to hear better.
"Glynnis"--the man on the table was saying.
"Is he waking up?" Sherman heard a voice asking.
A little embarrassed, Sherman turned around and saw Blomgard standing in the doorway, "Oh, I'm sorry, sir. No. At least I don't think so. He said something; a word. Glynnis, I think. Sounds like a girl's name."
Dr. Blomgard came into the room and walked over to the table on which his patient was stretched out. He removed the clipboard from its hook and looked through the sheaf of papers fastened to it. After a few seconds, he said, "Ah, yes. Glynnis. Part of his dream."
"Doctor--," Sherman heard himself saying, then caught himself.
"What, cadet," Blomgard asked, turning around. He was a big man, gray-haired, his hair an unruly mop. His eyes were dark and piercing, but they were softened by the thickness of the white brows over them.
"I assure you, that no question will be considered out of place, if that's what is worrying you."
"Well, doctor," Sherman said with some difficulty, "I was wondering if all this is worth it. I mean a special reserve with the artificial life-dreams for these people. Is it worth the expense and effort?"
Blomgard regarded the question a moment before answering. "Well, that depends on things. We have a fairly dynamic, expanding civilization. This man was born out of step; a natural born rebel. We've reached the stage where, with a little effort on their own part, most people can sooner or later find exactly what they want. There are, of course, exceptions. They can't help being the way they are, but they are that way. It isn't his fault that he would think nothing of blowing up any civilization he found himself living in. This is the solution."
"A drug-induced dream state? Is that a solution?"
"It's a pretty good one. We provide him with a completely fictitious, a totally unreal world in which he will be happy."
"How can anyone be happy like that? I prefer reality."
Blomgard smiled. "Yes, to a larger extent than he does, you do. Or you like what you think of as reality." He picked up the clipboard again and studied the papers on it. "His dream world is one that is designed for his happiness. In it, he sees everyone else as inhabiting the dream-coffin. And he pictures himself as a rugged individualist, going about trying to destroy such a civilization. And of course, he is practically a lone wolf. Not completely, for he would not be happy that way. The man is an underdog."
"I guess it's best," Sherman said.
"It is," the doctor replied, seriously. "We have no right to take his life; nor do have the right to destroy his personality, however much that personality may be offensive to us. And since most inhabitable planets are, unfortunately, inhabited before we ever get to them, we have more urgent colonies to establish where we can find room. No, this is best. We give him a dream based exactly on his psychological needs; a compensation, so to speak, for the real life we take away from him. For most people only have the right to pursue happiness. In return for a normal life, we've given him a guaranteed happiness."
The doctor let that sink in for a while; but Sherman still had a strong wish that he had pulled some other duty. Perhaps on one of the new outposts, like Deneb.
The doctor glanced at his watch. "Well, the repairs are done with and they should have the nutrient refreshed by now. Let's wheel him on back."
A little gratefully, Sherman moved over to the table.
"You'll be all right, soon enough," the doctor said to the unconscious man on the table. "This interruption will be neatly explained away and remain as merely a memory of a slightly unpleasant moment after things get back to normal. That'll convince you of the reality of your world--if you ever need convincing."
Sherman saw the sleeping man stir slightly and heard him utter sounds again.
"Wheel him out," Blomgard said.
Gratefully, Sherman turned the table around and wheeled it out the door.
From far off, Nelson heard Glynnis calling to him. "Are you all right, Hal?" he heard. "Can you hear me, Hal?"
"I can hear you," he managed to say. He opened his eyes. He saw his gun a few dozen feet away on the ground.
"I thought they had you, sure," Glynnis said quietly. "I got the two of them. Don't ask me how I did it, but I got them."