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On the Run

Gordon R. Dickson

  Mankind on the Run

  Gordon R. Dickson


  An Imprint of Start Publishing LLC

  New York, New York

  MANKIND ON THE RUN © 1956 by A.A. Wyn, Inc. © 1984 by Gordon R. Dickson. (slightly lengthened version of On the Run.)

  First Start Science Fiction edition 2013.

  All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Start Science Fiction, 609 Greenwich Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10014.

  Published by Start Science Fiction,

  an imprint of Start Publishing LLC

  New York, New York

  Please visit us on the web at

  ISBN: 978-1-62793-465-7


  The south-bound rocket, intercontinental, out of Acapulco, Mexico, for Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, flamed skyward east of the city, briefly ripping apart the soft tropical night with sound and fury. Its glare dwindled and vanished, leaving only the little firefly lights of small flyers, dropping down into the shallow bay before the Hotel Belmonte. On the terrace of the hotel's open-air dining area, cut from the rocky cliffs and facing the ocean, Kil Bruner turned from the noise of the departing rocket to see his wife, Ellen, dabbing furtively at her eyes.

  "You're crying?" he said. "What is it?"

  Ellen brushed hastily at her eyes with shaky fingers.

  "Don't—I'm not crying," she answered. "I'm just happy, that's all. Happy on our anniversary." She turned her head away. Don't look at me, please, Kil. Look over on the terrace, darling. Is the diving boy coming yet?"

  Kil scowled blackly, and slowly removed his gaze to the terrace, which extended to the mouth of the gorge on which the hotel was built. He was not by nature a biddable young man. His first articulate word, according to his mother, had been no. "That boy would say no," she was in the habit of saying, "if—" and there words always failed her. She had died in the same London-Capetown rocket crash that had killed his father, but her tall, rebellious son had continued to live according to her pronouncement with the imagination-provoking gap at the end.

  In the case of Ellen, however, it was a little different.

  So he did look over the terrace, past the rocky gorge into the small bay where the flyers nestled close on the water in parked ranks, like sleepy water fowl under the moon. Beyond them, the silver-dark ocean spread wide to the horizon; and far out, a whale blew, its plume of exhausted breath going up like a tiny, white finger, frosty for a second in the moonlight before it disappeared.

  Closer in, the terrace murmured darkly with shadowy forms, lounging and moving about. To the right, spotlighted by the pure bottled daylight of sunbeam lamps from the top of the old hotel, the dining area's main floor murmured brightly. Men in tunics and kilts, or trousers clipped tight at the ankle, talked and laughed with women in slacks, shorts, or skirts of all lengths. Here and there, the Key on someone's wrist gleamed even among the gleaming colors of the crowd. And in the gorge below, the water, mounting the tide, crashed and foamed high against die rocky walls. The orchestra played dance music.

  "Kil—" it was Ellen's voice. "You can look back now."

  He turned again to her. Her face, like some small flower, seemed almost freshened by the brief summer shower of her tears. Out of the brightness of the sunbeams illuminating the dance-floor, back in the shadow of moonlight where they sat, her face was beautiful, small and perfect, oval and delicate, blue eyes under soft blonde hair.

  "Don't look like that, Kil," she said. "It's nothing. Really it isn't." She put out a hand to touch his arm. "Happy fifth anniversary, sweetheart. I love you."

  "Well," he said gruffly. "I love you."

  She looked at him, sadly affectionate. Her fingers went up to rub gently away at the frown on his forehead. "My dark and angry man," she said.

  He made an effort to smooth his expression out. In the mirror of her eyes he saw himself as something different.. He was tall and lean, angular of face, black-browed, and scowling with habitual impatience. "I'm ugly," he had told her once, five years ago, with harshness. "But it's a beautiful ugliness," she had answered. Seeing himself reflected now in the magic crystal of her love, he almost believed it.

  "What was it?" he insisted.

  "Nothing . . . nothing . . ." she repeated; but her eyes seemed to glisten again for a second, in the moonlight. "I'm just sad about leaving, that's all."

  Automatically, reflexively, he glanced at the Key on her wrist and, from it, to the Key on his own. Above the Class A designation on the dials, and below the code numbers, the calchronometer of each showed twenty-seven hours remaining of the six months permitted them in one location.

  "We've had our period here," he said.

  "I know." But her face was still unhappy.

  "Nobody gets more than that," he said. "Why does it always bother you so much, Ellen?"

  "Because I want a home!" she burst out suddenly. "Because I want to settle down—oh, darling, don't ask me about it tonight. Look, Kil. Look, there's the diving boy coming now."

  His attention forced away, Kil looked over toward the terrace, following the direction of her pointing finger. The diving boy, or rather, his simulacrum—the plastoid automation imitation of a diving boy who once had been, back before Acapulco and everyplace else were more than just names on a map—was coming down the steps. Brown and compact, in trunks, and very lifelike, it descended to the lowest level of the terrace, climbed over the stone balustrade, and dived from view. A second later, its head popped up through the foamy water in the mouth of the gorge and it swam across to begin its climb up the face of the cliff opposite.

  "Ellen," Kil spoke to her profile, "there's been something on your mind lately—these past few weeks. What is it? Something about this next job? I don't have to take it, you know. If you don't want to go to Geneva, just say so. They need engineers everywhere; you know that. Just say where you'd like to go."

  "Kil!" She reached blindly for his hand without turning her head. "It's not that. It's—nothing, really."

  "Then why won't you tell me about it? If it's nothing, you ought to be able to tell me what it is. Why all this dodging around the question? You'd think I was an Unstab who couldn't be trusted to hear—"

  "Kill, please!" whispered Ellen, tightly. "People are staring at us. Look at that policeman over there."

  Startled, Kil turned his head and looked out over the little wilderness of adjoining tables. Twelve or fifteen feet away, his glance suddenly locked with that of a man sitting alone at a small table and gazing in their direction. The man wore no local uniform, but the insignia of the World Police, a bloody hand grasping the naked blade of an unsheathed sword, was on the front of his white tunic. As Kil's eyes met his, he looked away. Kil turned back to Ellen.

  "What of it?" he demanded. "I've got a right to know."

  "Wait!" She squeezed his hand fiercely with her own. "Wait until the diving boy's through."

  Tight-jawed and grudgingly, Kil sank back into his seat and let his gaze shift toward the gorge. The simulacrum had reached the top of the cliff now. The music of the orchestra stopped abruptly and a rolling of drums burst forth, shatteringly loud on the eardrums, echoing between the narrow walls of the gorge. The small, brown figure approached the edge of the cliff.

  Kil stole a glance at Ellen. Her eyes were closed, her face tilted back a little and held still as if against some arrowing inner pain. She seemed to hold her breath. Watching, Kil felt the sudden explosion of instinctive alarm bells within him.

  "Ellen!" he cried.

He started to reach out for her. And the world stopped.

  It was no small stopping. Everything ceased: everything froze. On the top of the cliff, the diver, bright-lit from below by the red glare of a fire of paper that had been kindled in the gorge, checked suddenly, leaning out at an impossible angle over emptiness. The sea became rippled glass, with a whale spout hanging tiny, and half-finished on the horizon. In the dining area, people stood and sat like arrested marionettes. The drummer poised his sticks in mid-roll and all sound stopped.

  Locked in stillness, like everything else, Kil strained to turn his head, to move in any way, but couid not. And then, from somewhere among the shadows on the terrace, there was movement.

  At first it was something half-seen out of the corner of Kil's paralyzed vision. And then, as it came closer, it resolved itself into a straightly upright old man, as tall as Kil, with wide-set eyes in a smooth face; an old man dressed simply in kilt and tunic. For a second this alone registered with Kil, who could not understand the reason for the basic feeling of wrongness with which the sight of the man struck him. Then it hit home. A difference that set this stranger off from all the four billions of other human beings that roamed the earth.

  The old man wore no Key.

  He came up to the table where Kil and Ellen sat.

  "Now, Ellen," he said. It was a deep, tired voice, a voice weary with years.

  Behind him, Kil heard the soft whisper of her skirt as Ellen rose. She came around the table slowly and stood looking down for a long moment into Kil's eyes.

  "Ellen," repeated the old man. "Ellen. Come now."

  There was no doubt about the tears in her eyes now. She bent swiftly and kissed Kil on his immobile lips. Then she turned; and the old man led her away, down into the shadowy, motionless crowd on the terrace, and out of sight.

  For a little while there was nothing. And then, like a sigh sweeping in from the sea, life and motion came back to everything and everyone. The fire flickered again and a wave, poised high against the cliffs of the gorge, fell back with a crash of water. The drummer's sticks finished their rolls; the diver dropped.

  He splashed into the water and a moment later reappeared, his head breaking the surface, small and sleekly dark in the firelight. Applause mounted. Couples moved out on the floor, and the orchestra began to play a dance tune in counterpoint.

  And at his table, Kil, able once more to move and speak, but facing an empty chair and an untouched drink, sat like a stone.

  Sat like a stone. . . .


  ". . . on good authority. News of the past six hours mirrors no increase in general stability, rather a slight falling off of sixteen thousandths of one per cent, according to the latest estimate of Files, published forty minutes ago by World Police Headquarters at Duluth, Lake Superior Region. This is a variation quite within normal limits and the Police are not unduly concerned.

  "Around the globe, there has been a minor outbreak of colds in North Berlin and the area has been quarantined, although local health control groups expect to have the matter well in hand within twelve hours. Present residents of the area have been advised that if they will present their Keys at any transportation checkpoint, they will automatically be reset to allow them an extra twelve hours stay within the area. In Tokyo, a riot flared briefly in the Slum Area as one faction of Unstabs met in pitched battle with another. Local authorities quickly restored order, but they have requested the World Police to investigate.

  "At Police Headquarters in Duluth, an official denial was issued today in answer to the rumor that Files has advised a tightening of residence limits for any single location. The rumor, as it reached this news office, predicted that residence limits for all Stabs, Classes A, B, and C, would be cut in half; and all Unstabs reduced uniformly to one week's time in any single area. 'Not only has Files not volunteered a recommendation for such a change,' said Hagar Kai, present six-month head of World Police, today, 'but we have advanced the question on a hypothetical basis and Files has responded negatively.' The World Union of Astrophysicists is meeting in Buenos Aires today; and elsewhere in the world—"

  The polite, indifferent murmuring of the news announcer, from the vision box recessed in the wall of the manager's office, crept forth to coil itself about the exhausted silence that had fallen among the three men. The local police chief sighed and shrugged.

  "What can I say?" He was heavy, Teutonic in appearance, but he spoke Basic with the swallowed consonants and slurred vowels of an Oriental. "You say something happened—"

  "It did!" cried Kil. He thrust his wrist with the Key on it under the uniformed man's nose. "Read it! Do you think I'm having delusions? Do you think I'm psychotic? Unstab?"

  "No, no. I can see. You're Class A," replied the chief, wearily.

  "Then why won't yon believe me?"

  "Because it is a lie!" shouted the manager of the hotel, excitedly. He was a slim, little, dark man and he literally pushed himself up on his toes with the violence of his argument. "I was there. Dozens of people were there. Nothing happened. Nothing stopped. I say so. Everyone else says so. If his wife left she must have just—" he threw both arms wide to the walls of the office "—walked off!"

  Kil turned his head and looked at the small and noisy man and, inside him there was a queer urge to commit murder. The Police chief caught its reflection in his eyes and put a calming hand on his arm.

  "Look," he said.

  Reluctantly, Kil turned back to him.

  "Look," said the Police chief, again. "You have to admit your story's fantastic. All right, maybe it happened. We're not savages who're going to yell impossible at the first strange word we hear. But you know I can't help you. I shift areas every six months, too. Violations of local ordinances—they're my job. You know whom to see."

  He stopped and gazed steadily at Kil, Kil stared back.

  "You mean the Police," he said.

  "The World Police. Right." The chief paused, still staring earnestly at Kil. "They've got the organization. They've got Files."

  Kil felt emptiness wash through him. He stood up. "All right," he said harshly. "I will." He turned and went out.

  Outside, the first clear, bright light of tropical morning took him by surprise. The night, since Ellen had disappeared, had seemed endless; he was almost a little shocked to see the daylight now, as if the world was committing a callous indecency to go its way in ordinary fashion when his own small part of it had been so shattered and overthrown. Feeling cold and somewhat empty, he stepped forward onto the rollers and from the rollers onto the moving roadway. He let the great, free transportation system that had shaped his life since childhood, carry him down the hill and away.

  At the Los Angeles-bound magnetic line, a long, slim, fifty-passenger craft floated in air within the large magnetic rings of its cradle. Ahead of it, the line of rings stretched along its route, up and over the edge of a mountainside, distance making them seem to close into a tube as they dwindled in perspective. As he stepped through the ship's entryway, Kil reached out automatically to present the face of his Key to the checkbox there. There was no sound from the Key but its calchronometer reading popped over to show a full six months before another move would be required.

  The mag ship had been all but full of passengers when he came up and he had little more than taken his seat when the fasten safety belts sign lit up. The door sucked shut, the ship floated gently forward out of the cradle and began to pick up speed between the spaced rings. The ground alongside blurred and spun away. At a little under a thousand miles an hour, the mag ship streaked for Los Angeles, the torn thunder of its passage echoing among the mountains in its wake.

  It was close to seven o'clock when Kil reached Los Angeles. An intra-continental rocket was leaving for Duluth in the Lake Superior region at seven forty-five. Kil had some coffee and then boarded it. Forty minutes later, acceleration slammed him back in his seat, the earth fell away beneath him an enormous distance, then drifted slowly back agai
n as the rocket glided down to Duluth. He stepped out at Duluth Terminal at three minutes after eleven, local time.

  He had never been to the Lake Superior Region and World Police Headquarters before. The breeze of the lake was cool and brisk, although it was late May. To save time, he caught an air cab at the entrance, dialed dispatcher information and explained his problem.

  "Complain Section Aj493," said the cab speaker. It took off, flitted for some fifteen minutes between tall buildings, was halted for beam-check at an entry point, and then allowed to continue, flying low and following a rigid route to a low, white building overlooking the lake itself.

  "Complaint Section," announced the cab, landing before the entrance and opening its door. Kil read the meter, took a roll of credit units from his packet and tore off a strip of the soft metal tabs. The meter gulped them with a click and thanked him. He got out and went inside the building.

  Within the front door, he found himself in what looked like a large, low-ceilinged auditorium, all broken up into small booths and compartments. The first row of these facing him, was nothing more than half-cubicles, like open visor-phone booths, each one having a panel containing a speaker slot and microphone. As Kil stepped into the nearest one, and pressed his Key into the waiting cup, a little light went on at the top of the panel.

  "State your complaint," said the speaker slot. "It will be electronically sorted and you will be directed to the proper human interviewer for detailed interview."

  "My wife is missing," said Kil.

  "Missing person," echoed the slot. The panel swung back, revealing a hallway with rows of numbered doors. "Go directly to the interviewer in room 243. Use your Key. Room 243 is the only door that will open to it."

  Kil walked through. Behind him, the panel swung shut, to await the next complainant. He went down the hallway, reading the door numbers until he came to 243. It was a door like all those that he had been familiar with since childhood, perfectly blank except for the Key-sensitive cup in the center of it.