Alan watched in astonishment as Quantrell took two steps hesitantly backward away from the bridge, then a third. There was a strange, almost thunderstruck expression on Kevin's face.
Then he broke out of it. He shook his head.
"We aren't really going across--huh, Donnell?" He gave a brittle little laugh.
"Of course we are!" Alan looked around nervously, hoping no one from the Valhalla had spotted him in all this time. Puzzled at Quantrell's sudden hesitation after his earlier cockiness, Alan took a couple of shuffling steps toward the bridge, slowly, keeping his eyes on the other starman.
"I can't go with you," Kevin finally managed to say. His face was flushed and strained-looking. He was staring upward at the seemingly topless towers of the city. "It's too big for me." He choked back a half-whimper. "The trouble with me is--the--trouble--with--me--is----" Quantrell lowered his head and met Alan's stare. "I'm afraid, Donnell. Stinking sweaty afraid. The city's too big."
Red-faced, he turned and walked away, back up the street.
Alan silently watched him go.
"Imagine that. Afraid!"
"It's a big place," Rat warned. "Don't you feel the same way? Just a little?"
"I feel perfectly calm," Alan said in utter sincerity. "I know why I'm going over there, and I'm anxious to get moving. I'm not running away, the way Steve was. I'm going to the Earther city to find my brother and to find Cavour's drive, and to bring them both back here!"
"That's a tall order, Alan."
"I'll do it."
Alan reached the approach to the bridge in a few more brisk steps and paused there. The noonday sun turned the long arch of the bridge into a golden ribbon in the sky. A glowing sign indicated the pedestrian walkway. Above that, shining teardrop autos whirred by, leaving faint trails of exhaust. Alan followed the arrows and soon found himself on the bridge, heading for the city.
He glanced back a last time. There was no sign of Kevin. The Starmen's Enclave seemed utterly quiet, almost dead.
Then he turned and kept his gaze forward. The Earther city was waiting for him.
He reached the end of the walkway and paused, a little stunned, staring at the incredible immensity of the city spread out before him.
"It's a big place," he said. "I've never been in a city this big."
"You were born here," Rat reminded him.
Alan laughed. "But I only stayed here a week or two at most. And that was three hundred years ago. The city's probably twice as big now as it was then. It----"
"Hey, you! Move on!" a harsh voice from behind snapped suddenly.
Alan whirled and saw a tall, bored-looking man in a silver-gray uniform with gleaming luminescent bands across the sleeves, standing on a raised platform above the road.
"You can't just stand here and block the walkway," the tall man said. His words were heavily accented, thickly guttural; Alan had a little trouble understanding them. The ship's language never changed; that of Earth kept constantly evolving. "Get back in the Enclave where you belong, or get moving, but don't stand here or I'll punch your ticket for you."
Alan took a couple of steps forward. "Just hold on a minute. Who----"
"He's a policeman, Alan," Rat said softly. "Don't make trouble. Do as he says."
Throttling his sudden anger, Alan nodded curtly at the officer and stepped off the walkway. He was an outsider here, and knew he couldn't expect the sort of warm fellowship that existed aboard the ship.
This was a city. A crowded, uncomfortable Earther city. These were the people who were left behind, who never saw the stars in naked glory. They weren't going to be particularly polite.
Alan found himself at an intersection, and wondered where he was to begin. He had some vague idea of finding Steve in this city as easily as he might aboard ship--just check the A Deck roster, then the B Deck, and so on until he found him. But cities weren't quite that neatly organized, Alan realized.
A long broad street ran parallel to the river. It didn't seem very promising: lined with office buildings and warehouses. At right angles to it, though, stretching out in front of him, was a colorful, crowded avenue that appeared to be a major artery of the city. He glanced tentatively in both directions, waited till a lull came in the steady procession of tiny bullet-shaped automobiles flashing by, and hastily jogged across the waterfront street and started down the avenue.
Maybe there was some kind of register of population at the City Hall. If Steve still lived in this city, he could look him up that way. If not---- Facing him were two rows of immense buildings, one on each side of the street. Above every three blocks there was a lacy aerial passageway connecting a building on one side of the street with one on the other, high above the ground. Alan looked up and saw black dots--they looked like ants, but they were people--making their way across the flexi-bridges at dizzying altitudes.
The streets were crowded. Busy stern-faced people raced madly from one place to the next; Alan was accustomed to the more orderly and peaceful life of a starship, and found himself getting jostled by passersby from both directions.
He was surprised to find the streets full of peddlers, weary-looking little men trundling along behind small slow-moving self-powered monocars full of vegetables and other produce. Every few moments one would stop and hawk his wares. As Alan started hesitantly up the endless-seeming street, one of the venders stopped virtually in front of him and looked at him imploringly. He was a small untidy-looking man with a dirty face and a red scar streaking his left cheek.
"Hey, boy." He spoke in a soft slurred voice. "Hey, boy. Got something nice for you here."
Alan looked at him, puzzled. The vender reached into his cart and pulled out a long yellow fruit with a small, thick green stem at one end. "Go on, boy. Treat yourself to some of these. Guild-grown, fresh-ripened, best there are. Half a credit for this one." He held it almost under Alan's nose. "Go on," he said insistently.
Alan fished in his pocket and produced one of the half-credit pieces he had been given in the Enclave commissary. For all he knew it was the custom of this city for a new arrival to buy the first thing offered to him by a vender; in any event, he was hungry, and it seemed that this was the easiest way to get rid of the little man. He held out the coin.
"Here. I'll take it."
The vender handed the piece of fruit over and Alan accepted it. He studied it, wondering what he was supposed to do now. It had a thick, tough rind that didn't seem at all appetizing.
The vender chuckled. "What's the matter, boy? Never seen a banana before? Or ain't you hungry?" The little man's derisive face was thrust up almost against Alan's chin.
He backed away a step or two. "Banana? Oh, sure."
He put the end of the banana in his mouth and was just about to take a bite when a savage burst of laughter cut him off.
"Looka him!" the vender cried. "Stupid spacer don't even know how to eat a banana! Looka! Looka!"
Alan took the fruit out of his mouth unbitten and stared uncomprehendingly at it. He felt uneasy; nothing in his past experience had prepared him for deliberate hostility on the part of other people. Aboard ship, you did your job and went your way; you didn't force your presence on other people or poke fun at them maliciously. It was the only way to live when you had to spend your whole lifetime with the same shipload of men and women.
But the little vender wasn't going away. He seemed very amused by everything. "You--you a spacer, no?" he demanded. By now a small crowd had paused and was watching the scene.
"Lemme show you how, spacer," the vender said, mockery topmost in his tone. He snatched the banana back from Alan and ripped back the rind with three rough snaps of his wrist. "Go on. Eat it this way. She tastes better without the peel." He laughed raucously. "Looka the spacer!"
Someone else in the crowd said, "What's he doing in the city anyway? He jump ship?"
"Yeah? Why ain't he in the Enclave like all the rest of them?"
Alan looked from one to the other with a troubled expression on his face. He didn't want to touch off any serious incident, but he was determined not to let these Earthers push him around, either. He ignored the ring of hostile faces about him and calmly bit into the banana. The unfamiliar taste pleased him. Despite hoots and catcalls from the crowd he finished it.
"Now the spacer knows how to eat a banana," the vender commented acidly. "Here, spacer. Have another."
"I don't want another."
"Huh? No good? Earth fruits are too good for you, starman. You better learn that fast."
"Let's get out of here," Rat said quietly.
It was sensible advice. These people were just baiting him like a bunch of hounds ringing a hare. He flexed his shoulder in a signal that meant he agreed with Rat's suggestion.
"Have another banana," the vender repeated obstinately.
Alan looked around at the crowd. "I said I didn't want another banana, and I don't want one. Now get out of my way!"
No one moved. The vender and his monocar blocked the path.
"Get out of my way, I said." Alan balled the slimy banana peel up in his hand and rammed it suddenly into the vender's face. "There. Chew on that a while."
He shouldered his way past the spluttering fruit vender, and before anyone in the crowd could say or do anything he was halfway down the street, walking briskly. He lost himself in the passing stream of pedestrians. It was easy to do, despite the conspicuous orange-and-blue of his Valhalla uniform. There were so many people.
He went on for two unmolested blocks, walking quickly without looking back. Finally he decided he was safe. He glanced up at Rat. The little extra-terrestrial was sitting patiently astride his shoulder, deep, as usual, in some mysterious thoughts of his own.
"Why'd they do that? Why did those people act that way? I was a perfect stranger. They had no business making trouble for me."
"That's precisely it--you were a complete stranger. They don't love you for it. You're 300 years old and still 17 at the same time. They can't understand that. These people don't like starmen very much. The people in this city aren't ever going to see the stars, Alan. Stars are just faint specks of light that peek through the city haze at night. They're terribly, terribly jealous of you--and this is the way they show it."
"Jealous? But why? If they only knew what a starman's life is like, with the Contraction and all! If they could only see what it is to leave your home and never be able to go back----"
"They can't see it, Alan. All they can see is that you have the stars and they don't. They resent it."
Alan shrugged. "Let them go to space, then, if they don't like it here. No one's stopping them."
They walked on silently for a while. Alan continued to revolve the incident in his mind. He realized he had a lot to learn about people, particularly Earther people. He could handle himself pretty well aboard ship, but down on Earth he was a rank greenhorn and he'd have to step carefully.
He looked gloomily at the maze of streets before him and half-wished he had stayed in the Enclave, where starmen belonged. But somewhere out ahead of him was Steve. And somewhere, too, he might find the answer to the big problem, that of finding the hyperspace drive.
But it was a tall order. And he had no idea where to begin. First thing to do, he thought, is find someone halfway friendly-looking and ask if there's a central directory of citizens. Track down Steve, if possible. Time's running out. The Valhalla pulls out in a couple of days.
There were plenty of passersby--but they all looked like the kind that would keep on moving without answering his question. He stopped.
"Come right in here!" a cold metallic voice rasped, almost back of his ear. Startled, Alan looked leftward and saw a gleaming multiform robot standing in front of what looked like a shop of some sort.
"Come right in here!" the robot repeated, a little less forcefully now that it had caught Alan's attention. "One credit can win you ten; five can get you a hundred. Right in here, friend."
Alan stepped closer and peered inside. Through the dim dark blue window he could vaguely make out long rows of tables, with men seated before each one. From inside came the hard sound of another robot voice, calling off an endless string of numbers.
"Don't just stand there staring, friend," the robot urged. "Go right on through the door."
Alan nudged Rat quizzically. "What is it?"
"I'm a stranger here too. But I'd guess it was some sort of gambling place."
Alan jingled the few coins he had in his pocket. "If we had time I'd like to stop off. But----"
"Go ahead, friend, go ahead," the robot crooned, his metallic tones somehow managing to sound almost human in their urgent pleading. "Go on in. One credit can win you ten. Five can get you a hundred."
"Some other time," Alan said.
"But, friend--one credit can win you----"
"--ten," the robot continued, undismayed. "Five can get you a hundred." By this time the robot had edged out into the street, blocking Alan's path.
"Are we going to have trouble with you too? It looks like everybody in this city is trying to sell something."
The robot pointed invitingly toward the door. "Why not try it?" it cooed. "Simplest game ever devised. Everybody wins! Go on in, friend."
Alan frowned impatiently. He was getting angrier and angrier at the robot's unceasing sales pitch. Aboard ship, no one coaxed you to do anything; if it was an assigned job, you did it without arguing, and if you were on free time you were your own master.
"I don't want to play your stupid game!"
The robot's blank stainless vanadium face showed no display of feeling whatsoever. "That's not the right attitude, friend. Everyone plays the game."
Ignoring him, Alan started to walk ahead, but the robot skipped lithely around to block him. "Won't you go in just once?"
"Look," Alan said. "I'm a free citizen and I don't want to be subjected to this sort of stuff. Now get out of my way and leave me alone before I take a can opener to you."
"That's not the right attitude. I'm just asking you as a friend----"
"And I'm answering you as one. Let me go!"
"Calm down," Rat whispered.
"They've got no business putting a machine out here to bother people like this," Alan said hotly. He took a few more steps and the robot plucked at his sleeve.
"Is that a final refusal?" A trace of incredulity crept into the robot's voice. "Everyone plays the game, you know. It's unconsumerlike to refuse. It's uncitylike. It's bad business. It's unrotational. It's----"
Exasperated, Alan pushed the robot out of the way--hard. The metal creature went over surprisingly easily, and thudded to the pavement with a dull clanking sound.
"Are you sure----" the robot began, and then the voice was replaced by the humming sound of an internal clashing of unaligned gears.