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For about the tenth time, she drew the memo from her flight suit pocket and consulted it. It was getting harder to read; the filmy paper stuck to her sweaty hands and tore as she peeled it loose. For an instant she shared John’s resentment at the efficiency of the newest biodegradables; then she sternly squelched such nonsense and studied the address.
“Melody Court, residence C-72. Main Corridor G until you reach Orchestra, left on Flute to Melody, down on Melody.” She smoothed torn edges back together. “Orange door, wrought-work grille.” Flute. That had been her mistake, then. She was on Piccolo. She sighed, turned, and trudged back the way she had come. Even the mild gravity of the station was bothering her. She’d better do more exercising on her next trip out.
She reached Orchestra and consulted a directory there. Flute was only a few intersections away. The walk would be good for her, she told herself sternly. And no one was staring at her; it was all her imagination. People were moving briskly about their own errands, or chatting amiably with one another. She turned down Flute.
And felt the change. It wasn’t just that this corridor was being kept a degree or two warmer, or that the piped-in music gradually ceased. Those were subtleties she might have missed, but not the handrails that ran down the center of the corridor, or the increased frequency of benches and com stations. On one public patio, several old men and two old women were playing cards. A niggling suspicion began to form in the back of Connie’s mind. She passed a bald old man, and then a woman using a glide-support; Connie paused to wait out a wave of panic. Retirement residences. That’s what this section of the station was.
Melody Court opened out before her. She took the ramp down to it, then stepped off it and forced herself to keep walking. She had to look at the memo film again. Her hands were sweating so badly it clung to them like burn-wrap. C-72. Orange door. Find it, get in, get the recordings, and get out. Simple enough. No need to panic. They were just people, even if they were old. Horribly old. She didn’t have to feel bad about her uneasiness, didn’t need to feel guilty. Many prepubes like herself had a difficult time relating to anyone who was sexually mature; her Adjustment counselor had assured her she’d scored within the normal range of stress ratings there. Of course, that stress was minor compared to her anxiety attacks around the elderly; Connie had been guiltily grateful that they’d never thought to test her reactions there. She knew it was wrong, but she couldn’t help it. Old people scared her. She hated their restlessness, their constant questioning of the way things were, their numerous complaints. She hated the way they always seemed to focus in on her, as if they could sense her fear and distrust of them. She had only been twenty-three the first time it happened. She had been out on her own for almost the first time, walking alone in the University district. And some old person, so old she couldn’t even tell if it had been a male or a female, had tottered up to her and demanded, “Two hundred and seven years, and for what? For what, I ask you?” Connie had just stood there, frozen with anxiety by the strange behavior, while the old person muttered and ranted and finally walked away, shaking a fist in the air. It had been her very first glimpse of someone that old; nothing she had seen since then had ever changed her opinion about them.
And Melody Court was full of them; this section of the station had been engineered for them. All the little tables with chairs where old people could gather and socialize, the open arcade of reader carrels, the large screen on the wall charting out Today’s Recreational Opportunities. And everywhere, old people, ignoring all these amenities to simply sit on the benches together and be old. Everywhere, the signs of their discontent. A bench had been unfastened from the floor and overturned. Sanded-out graffiti was bleeding through the finish on one wall, something protesting enforced retirement, and, farther on, an obscene sneer at the Medical Merit plan. A handwritten suggestion that if the Conservancy approved of Timely Termination, they should try it themselves. Connie jerked her eyes away from it, wondering if they were watching her read it, and studying her face to see how she felt about it. Annoyed, that’s how I feel, she wanted to tell them. You were born into this plan, you grew up within the system, but when you get old, you all want to trash it because it doesn’t focus on you anymore. Senile selfishness, that’s what it all was.
There was something about the wilting obsolescence of their bodies, the saggy breasts of the old women, soft hanging bellies, and wrinkled faces. The gravity of Castor or Pollux would have made it worse, but even in station grav it was bad enough. And the smell. No one else ever mentioned it, but she was sure she wasn’t imagining it. A used smell, like sweat and damp cloth and wet hair, a smell she somehow connected with sexuality past its prime. It seemed monstrously ironic that one had to endure the hormonal storms of puberty warping your intellect and logic, only to be physically ravaged by the withdrawal of those same hormones years later. It must be like surviving some terrible crippling disease like they had in ancient times, weathering it only to become a hobbling shadow of your former self. Connie averted her eyes from the sight of an old man leaning heavily on an old woman’s arm as they meandered down the corridor.
Orange door. C-72. And there was a wrought-metal grille over it. She reached through the metal to pull the chime lever, then stood waiting to be let in. She let her fingers idly trace the wrought work, trying to enjoy the abstract design, only to be surprised by the sturdiness of the metal. This was no decoration. Forgetting herself for a moment, she took hold of the grille and tried to rattle it. It wouldn’t budge. It was cold and rough and real under her hands, and the most antisocial thing she’d ever encountered. If a prepube or a pube had put up such a barrier, they’d have been taken away for Readjustment before the day was out. But a postpube could get away with almost anything. And usually did. Frequently Readjustment for postpubes was just not cost effective. That was the most often cited reason. The one that was quoted in undertones was that Adjustment didn’t work after a certain age; the personality just gave way and withdrew under the pressures. And when that happened, a humane and timely termination was the only possible prescription left. What else could they expect?
Connie pushed the thought out of her mind and began to bargain with herself. I will wait twenty more seconds, she thought to herself, and then I will leave and tell Tug that I tried, but no one was home. She reached and yanked the door chimes hastily, as a gesture to prove to herself that she had really tried, that she wasn’t running away. But the door jerked back from her fingers, the chime handle rapping her knuckles as it moved away. Without thinking, she raised the injured fingers to her mouth, and there she stood, sucking at her fingers like an infant with the old man staring out at her.
“Well?” he demanded.
She snatched her hand down from her mouth, tried to find an answer to what wasn’t a question. “Tug,” she blurted stupidly. The grating still stood between her and the old man. Beyond him she could glimpse a very dim and untidy room. He kept staring at her. His eyes had been brown, but the colors seemed to have leaked out into the whites, giving his eyes a smeary look. “Tug sent me to get some recordings from you,” she finally managed.
“Idiot,” the old man hissed at her. “Do shut up, now.” He did something on his side of the door, and the grate suddenly swung out toward her. “Come inside, and quickly now. Quickly!” the old man barked when she hesitated.
She obeyed, stepping inside into the untidiness, feeling her bowels churn as first the grate and then the door shut behind her. It was suddenly darker, and an odor of closeness and spilled food swelled up around her. She stepped forward, stumbled on something, and stood still again. The old man ignored her hesitation and moved deeper into the shadows of the room. “Move something and sit down,” he advised her testily. “I’ll be right back with his things.” And then he was gone, vanished into some darker alcove, leaving her to bumble in the dimness.
The only light came from a single wall strip, set on minimum. It also seemed to be behind the couch or some long, low piece of furniture. She saw the shape of a chair, moved toward it. Something was on it, hard little blocks, many of them.
“Just put them on the floor, or anywhere.”
The voice so close behind her startled her, and she jumped, sending whatever-they-were cascading to the floor.
“Dammit, not like that!” the old man hissed, as if she had done it deliberately.
Her nervousness at the whole situation suddenly blossomed into anger. “I didn’t mean to knock them down. If there were a little more light in here, I could see what I was doing.”
“If there were a little more light in here,” the old man retorted sarcastically, “there wouldn’t be much left to move around. All the stuff in this generation was made photo-sensitive. Light is all it takes to start triggering the breakdown. Remind Tug of that when you give them to him. He’d better plan on using them in the dark, or on rerecording them immediately. Because they’re right on the cusp. Put them in light, and they aren’t going to last long.”
The old man was acting as he spoke. Connie couldn’t see clearly what he was doing, but there was the click of little plastic boxes being stacked against one another. She leaned closer; he was packing box after box into a woven carry sack. He started to fold the cover flap, then paused a moment. Connie could feel him looking at her in the dark.
“Now, he’s going to find more here than he asked for,” the old man declared suddenly. As if the statement marked a decision he had just reached, he knelt stiffly down and reached under the couch. He grunted, struggling with something, and then Connie heard a light thud as something dropped to the floor beneath the couch. The old man dragged out a heavy box, letting it scrape across the flooring. When he pried open the lid, Connie heard a sudden hiss and smelt the telltale sour of preservegas. Illegal for private citizens to have that. She swallowed.
The old man sat down on the floor by the box, his knees popping protestingly as he did so. He took out something wrapped tightly in white film and held it close to his eyes. He grunted in satisfaction and pushed it down deep in the carry sack, talking as he did so. “I know the kind of stuff he told me to watch for. Old literature in nonstandard languages, poetry, damn mystery novels. Well, he got what he paid for. But here’s a little bonus. Maybe the biggest mystery of all. Ever hear of Epsilon Station, kid?”
“Epsilon is a myth,” Connie replied automatically. Everyone had heard of Epsilon, at least everyone old enough to be allowed unsupervised time. Connie thought of her generation sibs clustered in little groups on their rest mats, sharing deliciously scary stories of Epsilon Station. Epsilon Station Humans had mutated, or mutinied, or just opened their own vents one day and spaced themselves away. Epsilon Station had created a plague that killed them all and nearly spread to the rest of the Human population, except that one courageous woman had vented the station to space. Epsiloners had stopped taking growth inhibitors and they grew too big for the station and it just burst open under the pressure. Epsiloners had had their own babies, from their own bodies, and made too, too many people, so they killed one another in the corridors and rioted over food and all lived together in the same dwellings, regardless of age.
Connie thought of the story of the shuttle that went way off course and landed on Epsilon and barely escaped from the plague-ridden survivors there. Later, the crew found a mutant tentacled hand, dead and gripping the air-lock wheel. Epsilon was still out there, looping in an exaggerated orbit, and Beastships that ventured too close had been fired upon. She’d heard that last one at the Merchant Marine Academy, from a student old enough to know better. But the story would still be repeated and passed on. Everyone had heard of Epsilon.
“Bullshit!” the old man hissed. Connie recognized it as an ancient oath. “Epsilon wasn’t a myth. It’s a lesson, and one we shouldn’t forget. The Conservancy vented Epsilon, six hundred years ago. Because Epsiloners dared to live as their ancestors had, dared to believe their right to a natural life was as important as a plant’s. So the Conservancy vented them, before their attitude could spread. It’s all here, right here. And I want Tug to have it. See, here, it’s called A Brief History of the Abomination of Epsilon. Conservancy made it, so they masked the truth with their philosophies and lies, but it’s all there, for anyone with one ear and half an eye. Then a few decades later, they got scared some of us might get smart to them, so they hushed it up. Destroyed all copies and references to Epsilon. You tell Tug to study this one. It’s a real mystery all right. If Epsilon was just a myth to scare little children, why’d they make this record? And then why did they destroy every single copy and everything that referred to this record? You answer me that, kid. Answer me that.”
He crawled over the floor to Connie, and she instinctively backed away. Questions, again. Why did they always ask her questions? The man was crazy. Not just unadjusted, but mentally unbalanced. Dangerous. She backed toward the door. But he only started gathering up the boxes Connie had spilled. “He can have all this shit, too. Can’t sell it. No one’s smart enough to buy it. Some of it’s pretty esoteric, and some of it’s weird, and some of it is just plain useless. So I can’t sell the damn things. Fools don’t know what they’re buying anymore, all they talk about is whether or not it’s a collector’s item. They only want the fancy stuff with the pretty pictures. But these are knowledge, damn it all, and it should be saved by someone, somewhere. Even if it’s some ’throp alien.”
The shock of hearing Tug referred to as ’throp, let alone an alien, kept her silent. Alien? She had grown up knowing that the only aliens on Castor and Pollux were Humans. Everything else had a perfect right to be there. She swallowed, but kept her silence. Besides, what was she going to say? Perhaps, “Are these recordings contraband? Are these illegally salvaged tapes that I’m going to be carrying back through Delta Station?” Sure. Some small sane part of her mind was advising her to get out now, to refuse to take them, so she wouldn’t be involved, so they couldn’t take her for Adjustment again. But a sadder, wiser part of herself already knew the truth, had known it since her last Readjustment. She was marginal. Anything like this, any merest brush with illegality and they’d adjust her. Again and again, until they got it right, or until nothing was left of her. Funny, how sometimes thoughts like that, the ones that should have terrified her the most, calmed her down and made her feel some measure of control over her life.
The old man was still talking, but something in his voice had gone dead. “Just have him do the credit transfer, like before. And tell him good-bye for me. He’s been a good customer. Better than John. John quit coming when he found out Tug knew about me. John’s such a prick sometimes. Who cares, anyway? I’ll be long gone before Evangeline puts in here again. Every time I go in for my heart, they shake their heads more, and do less for me. ‘Is this quality of life really worth living?’ they ask me. ‘Do you feel you’re still an asset to society?’ Like I ever was. Hell.” The old man paused and cleared his throat with a disgusting wet cough.
“You tell that Tug that if I find someone who’s interested in the business, I’ll put him in place, and Tug will be able to reach him, same old way, same codes. But I don’t think I will. Every year there’s less and less to save. Of the old stuff, I mean. So much already gone, and some of the tapes I get now are irretrievable. Too far decayed when I get them. So you tell Tug he’s got as good a collection as anyone has of the old Earth stuff. He should be able to trade duplicates with other collectors, if he wants. But if he makes too many copies and trades them, his own collection will lose value. Not to mention that sooner or later he’ll get caught.”
The carry sack was bulging. The old man tottered upright, suddenly wheezing with the effort. He caught the back of the chair and sat down on the place he had just cleared. Connie stood silent, watching him. Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light. She could see the bony structure of his face, holding up under the sagging flesh. He might have been handsome, a very long time ago. Now she could almost see his body biodegrading, could imagine the rot working through him, breaking down his muscles and bones…. She felt a wave of panic, wanted to leave. But his knotted old hand still gripped the strap of the carry sack. “Now I told you about light, didn’t I?” the old man queried himself.
“You told me,” Connie replied softly.
The old man stared at her suddenly, as if he had just noticed she were here. “You’re not like the others,” he accused her. “You’re no paid courier. What’s in this for you, boy?”
“Girl,” Connie corrected him quietly, taking no offense. It was a common error. Her big-boned structure made her look masculine, she knew that. Maybe puberty would change that, but she doubted it. “Doing it as a favor for Tug. I work on his ship,” and she stopped, wondering if she had said too much.
“You do, huh? Huh. How about that. That used to be my job, I was Talbot, the crewman. Until that prick fired me. Well, you watch these tapes, too, then. Learn a little about your roots, about what you really are. What we were.” He didn’t hand the pack to her. His old hand just let go of the straps, so they fell limply on the floor. He leaned his head back on the chair, sighed heavily. “Door’ll lock behind you,” he told her, and sat still, breathing.
Connie accepted the dismissal and stooped to take the straps of the carry sack. It was heavy, too heavy for her to carry comfortably in station gravity. Weighed like old-generation plastic, the stuff that was illegal to possess in any form. She looped the woven straps over her arm and blundered her way out. After the metal grille swung shut behind her, she realized she had not said good-bye. It didn’t matter; he wouldn’t have noticed.
She trudged off down the corridor, trying to walk as if she were used to both station gravity and the load she was carrying. Paranoia, she told herself, was making her imagine that all the old people loitering and chatting in the courtyard turned to watch her go, and that their eyes lingered on her sack and their withered pink mouths worked more busily after she had passed.
She glanced down once at her burden and was dismayed at how the carry sack gaped open. The tumble of illicit plastic recordings was visible to anyone’s curious glance. She tucked it uncomfortably under her arm, hoping her sleeve covered most of it. She got back onto Main Corridor G and found a commercial sector. Here her bulging bag didn’t look so out of place.
She entered the first garment shop she came to and attempted some hasty shopping. Up until this moment, she hadn’t intended to buy anything on this shore leave. The bright new colors and the gauziness of the new generation of fabrics almost overwhelmed her with indecision. She reminded herself that all she wanted was something to stuff in the top of the carry sack to conceal the plastic. Finally she selected a fluffy shawl, and then, in a sudden burst of impulsiveness, one of the new brightly colored long skirts and tunics so many of the women seemed to be wearing. She handed the bored clerk her consumer chit and then her credit card. He keyed in her purchases without looking at her, then ran her consumer chit to make sure she wasn’t over her allotment for clothing commodities. He considered his screen for a moment, leaned closer as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, and then looked up at her.
“As near as I can read this,” he said carefully, “you have about thirty years of commodity allotment waiting to be used.”
Connie smiled embarrassedly, wishing only that the transaction were over and that her purchases were in her bag covering her guilty cargo. “Mariner,” she explained, gesturing at her orange coveralls. “I’m out in deep space a lot. No time to use up my allotments when I’m in port.”
“Oh, yeah?” A faint stirring of interest in the clerk’s brown eyes. “You sure you want to buy this skirt then? The degradable on it is only three years. Probably just rot away in your locker while you’re in Waitsleep. Unless you preservegas it. I hear you guys are allowed to do that.”
“I’ll gas it,” Connie promised him, and tried to gather up her purchases. He let her get the shawl, tunic, and skirt billowed into her carry bag, but stood holding her cards.
“You got a lot of back clothing allotment on here,” he told her, as if it were something she hadn’t understood.
“I know.” She held out her hand for the cards.
He ignored the gesture, but put an elbow on the counter and leaned across it to say quietly. “I know people who would be interested in that back allotment.”
“What?” Connie asked stupidly, instinctively drawing back from him.
“Everybody does it, anymore. You don’t need it, so pass on the allotment to someone who does. Gotta be your size, of course, but the customer tells us what she wants, she pays, but it racks up against your allotment, and she puts a generous credit to your account. Of course, you’re not exactly the most common size, but there’s still a market for all that unused allotment.”
Connie tightened her grip on the carry bag. Had he seen the plastic? She didn’t think so. So why was he approaching her with something so monstrously illegal? “I’m a good citizen,” she informed him faintly.
Something in his face changed. It wasn’t what she had expected. Instead of recoiling, his eyes widening as he realized he’d approached an honest citizen with his criminal plan, he just sighed and rolled his eyes, as if he’d told her a joke and she’d asked him to explain it. With a condescending sneer, he flipped her cards onto the counter so that they nearly slid off. She almost dropped her bag catching them. “Of course you’re an honest citizen,” he said sarcastically. “We all are. Aren’t we? Aren’t we all just perfectly adjusted and totally happy being good little citizens? Besides”—he leaned across the counter toward her and lowered his voice to a nasty register—“I didn’t offer to do anything illegal. I was just telling you that such a market existed. The very fact that you thought I was making you an illegal offer probably means that you are unadjusted, with illegal longings just lurking all through your brain. So think on that, good citizen.”
He pushed himself back abruptly and stalked off across the shop, muttering to himself about “good citizens.” Connie stared mutely after him, then stuffed her cards into her carry bag with her new garments and the illegal plastic recordings. She hurried out of the store and down Main Corridor G, feeling obscurely shamed and guilty. But hadn’t she done what was right? Shouldn’t she feel virtuous and pleased with herself? The goal of the consumer allotment chit system was to prevent excess consumption of goods, a behavior that always resulted in needless harvest of raw materials and future waste. By refusing to sell her own excess allotment, she had worked within the system to prevent waste and discourage greed for consumer commodities. She had taken the correct action. So why did she feel foolish and embarrassed? Why was she hurrying away as fast as she could go with the heavy bag, desperately afraid that mocking laughter would follow her?
She was halfway back to the dock before she realized she had hours left of leave time. Forget it. She just wanted to get back to Evangeline and a world where the rules were hard and fast. She shifted her carry bag, set her face, and walked on.
Her orange coveralls were enough to get her waved past the safety lock that separated the docks from the station proper. She was halfway down the corridor to the security checkpoint when it suddenly occurred to her that she was carrying contraband. Incredibly stupid, not to have thought of this before. But she’d never before had anything to fear from the checkpoint. She slowed her step, not daring to stop and fearing to continue. Odd, how she had been aware of the illegality of her errand from the very beginning, but it only now dawned on her that this was where she would be caught. She kept walking, taking step after step toward her fate, her face set in stillness. Inevitable. No avoiding it. No turning back. Even if no one got suspicious at the lock, she had nowhere else to go. Might as well get it over with. This was where she paid for all her stupidity. They’d stop her, they’d confiscate the recordings, and the violation would let them access the confidential portion of her records. The Adjustment would be on there, and Readjustment would be mandatory. Only this time they would leave nothing untouched, not one memory would be unhandled, undiscussed, or unimproved. A coldness blew through her.
The girl at the checkpoint had her eyes down, focused on something, probably a lap terminal. Connie watched the crown of her head as she walked steadily toward her.
The voice came from behind her, a half-hissed plea. She faltered, glanced back. John. He looked angry. She felt her guts tighten at the fury in his eyes. She retreated a half step closer to the checkpoint desk.
“Stop!” he hissed, and she was suddenly aware of the effort he was making not to shout. She halted where she was, and glanced once more at the security clerk. She was still absorbed in whatever she was doing.
A few strides of John’s long legs caught him up to her. He stepped between her and the clerk, glanced back down the hall, gave a half smile and a wave to someone else down there. Still smiling, he growled at Connie, “What do you think you’re doing? How stupid can you get?”
She looked up at him, indecision and confusion freezing her. He casually wrested the handles of the carry bag from her hand. That galvanized her. “Hey, that’s mine!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I know whose this is, and I know where it came from. What kind of a fool do you take me for?”
Connie stared up at him, unable to speak. She had never seen another Human in such a pitch of anger before. It terrified her more than his words.
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