IX

He woke and smelled himself.

It wasn’t pleasant. He got up and undressed, went into the bathroom and showered for half an hour, washing away all the things he had covered himself with in the past days, all the things other than dirt and sweat, the things that couldn’t be seen or smelled but were nonetheless there.

The water gurgled, babbled, talked as the sea talked.

Water, he thought, was like a womb. Water was an aperture in the earth’s belly from which life crawled forth to be spanked by the hands of the Fates and the Furies. And water cleansed life, washed away the dirt, leaving only the pure things which Nature first brought forth as her own. In the spring, it fell out of the heavens and splashed lightly onto the ground, dribbled away, cleansing the earth of the stain of evils endured. And in the winter, it drifted gentle and white, a virgin mantle to restore the hymen of the land, to make things once again pure and sweet and innocent.

Listening carefully, he conversed with it for half an hour, laughing at the tales it told, sighing at the confidences it imparted, frowning at the philosophical comments it made on its way to the sewer.

When he went back to his room, his old clothes were gone and a set of fatigues, olive drab, was waiting for him. This, he recognized, was the uniform dress of the lower class of the Romaghin social structure. He slipped into the rugged yet snug clothes, pressed the ends of the magnetic belt together, slipped into the black boots that were exactly like his old ones except that they broke at mid-calf rather than just below the knee — another sign of the lowest class. It seemed to him, from what history he could remember from Triggy Gop’s books, that rebels always identified with the common people — in this case, even though the common people were just as ready, willing, and able as anyone else to blow their heads off.

He strapped the flybelt on and pocketed the gas pistol that had also been left undisturbed. He was warmed by the realization that these people were trying to show their trust for him. He had forgotten that some people could be trusted. And were trusting. Opening the door, he collided with the catgirl. “Oof!” he managed to gasp.

“I came to escort you to the dining hall. We didn’t expect you to sleep until lunch,” she said, laughing.

“Your accommodations were too good. I think the bed injected me with some sinister narcotic.”

“Dragon blood,” she said in a mock whisper. Her eyes were like stars.

She led him to the end of a side corridor branching off his own and pushed open a door. “This is it.”

He held it. “Ladies first.”

He thought she blushed.

“Thank you,” she said demurely, entering the room.

They were all at the table. Corgi and Hunk sat side by side at one end. Babe sat across from Fish, and Tohm was shown to a chair next to Mayna. Seer sat in the corner, babbling something to himself, endlessly weeping.

“Oh,” Tohm said suddenly, “if I’m taking his seat—”

“No, no,” Corgi said, his eyes rippling with brilliant gold.

“But after all, I’m just an intruder, and—”

“He sits in the corner always,” Corgi said.

Everyone seemed to be uneasy.

“We can draw another table up to this one. I can sit there,” Tohm said.

The cat paw came, and the thin finger touched his arm. “I feed him after we are done. It is always like this.”

Tohm looked about at the others, then back to Mayna. “He can’t feed himself?”

Her eyes suddenly sparked with a bright light that glittered behind the green little globes. “No, he cannot feed himself! Yes, he is next to helpless! So what is that to you?”

He sat, mouth open. “Well, I didn’t mean—”

“Of course you didn’t,” Corgi said quickly. “You don’t understand many things. Mayna gets carried away at times.” He gave her a stern look.

She was no longer breathing heavily. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking directly at him. “I didn’t mean it. Corgi is right. The pressure.”

They ate in continued uneasiness, although everyone had made an apology. Tohm wanted nothing more than to get through the entire experience without offending anyone. If Triggy Gop had only had material that would have given a stupid man the basics…

The food was, though more refined than that on Hazabob’s ship, every bit as good as any he had ever eaten. There were thin, delicious sprouts of some green vegetable done in butter sauce and sprinkled with tiny black nuts. Three different varieties of fruit salads dotted the table. The main course was a noodle casserole in some delightful custardy sauce with miniature onions.

“We don’t eat meat,” Corgi said from across the dish-littered table. “Too many of us are semi-animals in appearance. Somehow, it would be like eating a brother. We stick to fruits, nuts, vegetables. Mayna can do some marvelous things with them.”

“Mayna cooks too?” Tohm asked, looking at her with new admiration.

“Oh, yes. And Mayna is an expert with the hand laser too. Best marksman — rather, markswoman, we have.”

She smiled at Tohm and nibbled daintily on a snaky green bean.

“Perhaps you would be interested in knowing what each of us does here,” Corgi said, warming to his subject. “Babe, as useless as he seems, is the best man on explosives in this arm of the galaxy. Often, we have to rescue Muties from Romaghin clutches. Babe can make a bomb out of ice and water.”

“Not quite,” Babe said through a mouthful of casserole.

“Just about,” Corgi continued. “There are times, Tohm, when we would not have succeeded in springing our soulbrothers had it not been for Babe. The Romaghins and Setessins will fight fiercely to hold them for torture and execution. Technically, since they created us, they should be supporting us or at least be letting us have jobs and citizenship. Instead, they kill us on sight. It is an old trait in men. I think it is an attempt to salve their consciences for the wrong acts that caused us. If they pretend we are evil, attribute to us a relationship with the devil or with the enemy, killing us makes sense. And when they have murdered all of us, they will no longer have to face the mistake they made.”

“That Black Beast, the superego,” Babe said.

“Then Fish,” Corgi continued, “comes in exceedingly handy. He can get by on land using his lungs or in the sea by closing them up and working through his second respiratory system. You noticed the gills. When a passing ship is taking Muties to the docks to be unloaded and penned for execution, he can swim out, board it, and usually complete his mission with great success.”

Fish didn’t bother to look up. He was, Tohm could see, the loner of the group.

“Hunk is invaluable, because he is slightly telepathic.”

“An Esper?”

“Yes. The Romaghins tell you there are no such things. But he is a living contradiction.”

Hunk lifted a tuft of lettuce and munched on it.

“Hunk tells us when he senses any Muties in distress. When an individual, especially a Mutie, is under pressure, in pain, or just plain scared, he radiates a stronger thought pattern. Hunk can then pick it up. We go into action on his advice. Not every hutch, which is what we call this place, is lucky enough to have a telepath.”

“Hunk tells you when a ship with Muties is approaching.”

“Exactly,” Corgi said, taking a sip of his wine, an amber fluid that sparkled like prisms, refracting the light as if it were a gem and not a liquid. “And I have a multiplex brain.”

“A what?”

Mayna nibbled away at another bean.

“A multiplex brain. I see what is happening now and can plot the possible futures for it in an instant.”

“You see the future?”

“No, no. Nothing so wonderful and horrible as that. I see the possibilities. There are thousands, millions, countless possible futures. I scan them at any moment of crisis. If ninety percent of the futures say we will fail in the mission, we do not jeopardize ourselves. If the chances are fifty-fifty or better in our favor, we go through with it.”

“Fifty-fifty odds are not so terribly good,” Tohm said.

Corgi shrugged and sipped more wine.

Tohm sipped more wine.

“And of course,” Corgi went on, “we all can reach Out There, and we all have the power to distort the Fringe. That’s the psi benefit we all seem to have inherited.”

Tohm set the wine goblet down. “That’s what I don’t understand. What is all this business about the Fringe and shell molecules and exchange?”

Corgi shifted heavily in his chair. “It’s rather hard to explain to someone who doesn’t understand the basics of physics or the general common terminology involved. But there is a way to rid the universe of the Romaghins and Setessins. And, to my fellow Muties, I want to announce now that Hunk has brought me information which changes all our plans.”

All heads turned to Hunk.

“I don’t know,” he began, folding his pseudo-arms on the table. “Perhaps it was the force we exerted, greater than any group has yet. But being that close to it, I had a satori, an insight. We are trying to hold back the universe while lifting parts of it — the Romaghin and Setessin worlds — and holding the rent in the shell molecule open for those parts to pass through. I saw it, our mistake, and wondered why the Hell no one ever thought of it before. We attributed our failures to our undeveloped talents which we hoped to strengthen. But the fault lies in our method, not our means. Look, the idea is to lift the entire universe and leave the Romaghin and Setessin worlds behind. The size of the passing universe will hold the Fringe open of its own accord. We won’t have to worry about that.”

The hush continued around the table for some seconds.

“By God!” Babe said.

Fish flapped his gills excitedly.

“Hunk, I love you,” Mayna said.

“I have contacted the Old Man,” Corgi said. “In a week, he says, we will be ready to try it. We’re going to agglomerate our forces on the pro-Mutie worlds of the Federation and hope that the Romaghins and Setessins do not discover that something is up before we can act.”

“Wait,” Tohm said, his voice shaky. “What about my Tarnilee?”

“Good God!” Fish said. “Don’t you realize that this is much more important than any one person? Don’t you see what this will mean?”

Tohm stood, suddenly angry. “I see that it means you will not help me, that you’ll all go back on your word. I see I’ve been a fool!”

“Wait!” Corgi shouted, standing too. “He’s right. We did promise him. We can make arrangements to be the last group evacuated and still have time to help him find his bride.”

“I agree,” Babe said.

“Me too.” — Hunk.

Mayna sat in silence.

“Tomorrow the search will begin,” Corgi said. “Today, since we cannot accompany you into the streets, you will memorize the street plan of the city. I’ll help you. We have teach machines to hypno some of it in, the rest we’ll club you with until you have scars to remind you. You’ll know the capital inside out, upside down.”

They both sat down once again.

“We never want to become like the Romaghins or the Setessins. We keep our word. We are fighting hypocrisy, friends; we don’t want to give in to it.”

The remainder of the afternoon was passed with intermittent sessions in the hypno-teacher and with Corgi and Babe pounding him with questions, testing what he had learned, strengthening his weak points, visualizing the positions of the buildings which the hypno-teacher had given him. An hour before supper, Corgi suggested he go shower and rest, noting that they would continue in the evening. Tired, he agreed.

He left the central control chamber and entered the halls. There were about a dozen of them, he understood, all with empty rooms, rooms once filled by other Muties. He reached the twist in the corridor that would take him to his own room, and he heard the singing.

Lilting…

Lilting, sweet, the notes rose to his ears, faintly, like a siren singing from her rocks…

Soft…

Melodic…

Almost trancing…

He followed the sound, bending from one corridor to another. Eventually he came to a hall that ended in natural stone, dipping down into what appeared to be a cave. Here the robots had stopped spewing out all form plasti-jell.

Lilting…

He walked to the cave mouth, sidled through the narrow entranceway, and looked about.

Melodic, trilling of birds but not quite…

Limestone stalactites plunged down and met stalagmites soaring up, wedded them midway. The stones sparkled with different colors. A film of moisture lay on the floor, and droplets of limy water dripped from the ceiling. The water was speaking to him even here: kerplosh-kerplosh.

Lilting…

Kerplosh…

Melodic…

Kerplosh…

The singing was louder now and was tinged with a faint echo. He followed the sound through a narrow tunnel and came out into a much larger room where a small underground stream emptied into a shallow lake that reflected the uneven ceiling with mirror clarity so that the water almost denied its own presence.

She was sitting on a rock overlooking the water, her knees drawn up, curled much like a cat sitting upon a window ledge. Her back was to him, her hair falling to the middle of it, sleek and shiny.

“That’s beautiful,” he said.

She didn’t turn around. “I knew you were there. Thought you were watching in secret, huh?” She did turn around now, smiling.

He could do nothing but smile in return.

“I have ears like a cat,” she laughed. “I heard you when you first stepped from the hallway.”

“I’m clumsy by nature,” he said, sitting next to her. “What are all these caves?”

“The land about here is honeycombed with them, for we transferred them with the city. We have an exit, a back door, through these caverns.” “The song you were singing—”

“One of the songs Fish wrote.”

“Fish?”

“It has the currents of the waters in it, don’t you think? The noises of the ocean. The words are nonsense words written merely to evoke a feeling of the sea.”

And as she sang more of it, he realized it did exactly that. He could nearly feel the eddies in the water, the waves. There was that quality of sea-talk he had often heard.

“You certainly are a talented group,” he said at length.

“You gain something when you lose normality, Tohm. Nature mutilates your fetus, smashes you about in drunken folly, then repents and, at the last moment, presents you with many talents, some even superhuman. Every Mutie I know has, besides the ability to sense and affect the Fringe, some talent, some beautiful ability.”

“I see.”

“I doubt it,” she said, standing.

They began walking the rim of the Lake.

“No,” he said. “Really, I do. I can understand what it must be like. This is not my original body. I went through something similar.”

He explained his history, the chemical tanks, the brain transplant, the machine buried eighty-three miles under the sands back near the City That Used To Be.

“That’s fine,” she said, wrinkling her tiny, perfect face into an expression of distaste, “but it shows you don’t really understand.”

He looked at her, felt his tongue tying itself in knots. From the glint of her eyes, he could see that something was about to happen. But he didn’t know what, and he was powerless to stop it. He didn’t even know if he wanted to stop it.

“You never thought that with that machine of yours, one of the rare Romaghin Jumbos, you could give Hunk a real body! You could take Babe out of that farcical shell of his and put him inside a big, strong, hulk like your own.”

He swallowed his heart. Twice. “Of course! How stupid of me! We’ll go back now. I can do that for every Mutie you bring me.”

“No.”

He stopped tugging at her. “What do you mean — no.”

“Are you even more stupid than I thought? No means no! No, we don’t tell Corgi. No, we don’t tell Babe. No, we don’t put any of them in he-man bodies!”

“Come on. Let’s find Corgi—”

“No!”

“But you said—”

“I baited you. I wanted to see if you have even the slightest glimmer of understanding about us, Tohm, wonderful Tohm, Hero Tohm.”

“Now wait,” he said desperately, clutching her hand. He could feel the final rumbles as the volcano began to surge with lava. He didn’t think he wanted to see the eruption.

She jerked her hand from his. “You wait! What makes you think Babe could adjust to being normal, huh? Two hundred and twenty-three years he’s been a Mutie. Two hundred and twenty-three years he’s been a child. Just overnight he takes a he-man body of a normal and thinks nothing of it? And Hunk. Precious goddamn Hunk. Hunk spits out his bodily wastes, a green liquid that smells damned unpleasant. Hunk, you think, could just up and be normal without any trauma involved, no mess up in his mind.”

“The machine surgeons are good. They won’t make a mistake in—”

For a moment, she seemed to snarl. “I’m not talking about the physical end of it. Psychologically, man. Way down there in his id and his ego and his superego, even, all these years he has been suppressing the desires that were human and fostering the ones that were Mutie because the Mutie desires were the only ones he could satisfy. All those years, his ego has been building him up, telling him that he is more than a normal, better, happier, less prejudiced, more liberal, more talented. You want to change his id, turn it upside down, smash the old and slip in the new. Oh, boy! You want to tell him that all those human desires that were unsatisfiable are suddenly his again. You want to smash his ego by telling him that he was lying to himself, that being normal is better. You want to crush, mash, burn, and blow away the ashes of his life. And you can’t see where it would mess him up.”

“I never thought—”

She spun about, facing him with something akin to hatred in her eyes — but not quite. Nothing seemed to be quite anything anymore. “You never thought! You never added it up. And, Mr. Tohm, what makes you think we even want to be like you? What makes you think being normal is such a lack? We want equality, man, not conformity. We want a world where we don’t have to hide in cellars like rats. We don’t want to be humans, normals. We’re different. We aren’t the same but, God, we aren’t all ugly. Most, almost all of us are intriguing, not hideous. We’re the new mythology for this world, Hero Tohm, but we aren’t a mythology on paper. We live, breathe, walk about — fantasies in flesh. You should see some of those in the other hutches on this world and all the others — some of those who died under old Hazabob’s hand. Beautiful. A phantasmagoria of wonderful creatures, beings hidden in the folds of creative imaginations for a million years — now stepping through the womb and popping up alive. They are better than normals.”

He grabbed her by the arm, swung her around. “All right. I grant all this. But why take it out on me?”

“You wouldn’t understand!” she hissed.

“Everyone, goddamn it, says that I don’t understand. But no one will explain it.”

“You couldn’t understand it.”

“Shut up!”

“You couldn’t!”

He slapped his hand across her face, stared at the red imprint it left. The smell of her was strong, sweet and somehow musky. When he plunged his lips against hers, he was not thinking so very much of what he was doing. Not very much at all. Frustration and confusion had mounted within him and found its form in this. She kissed back for a moment, then tore herself from him and ran back toward the hutch. From the main cavern, she called to him, “Supper will be almost ready. The men cooked it tonight. It might not be good, but you had better hurry.”

And she was gone.

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