Authors: John Brunner
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There are machines to move, that do move, half a million people a day from world to world as expeditiously as postal packages, and with them a million tons of freight like entries in a ledger, balancing.
And I am Jorgen Thorkild walking. On two legs in the ancient manner. Down a corridor that never feels the tread of human feet. Who can say how long since anybody came this way? There is of course no dust; that is seen to by efficient quiet machines, as and when necessary. The designer of the Bridge Centre worked in an age when our creations were not so totally reliable as now; he thought in terms of emergency exits, fire escapes, and the like.
Am I here because of an emergency? I guess I must be. But I wish sometimes I could find an emergency exit from my life. Saxena did.
But he must not think about Saxena. Determinedly he concentrated on the doors he was passing, hearing at the edge of audibility occasional voices and other noises. The building was in irregular interlocking layers. Some of it was underground, some had a view over the surrounding city, according to the taste of
the occupants. This layer was above ground. Not that one could have deduced the fact from this featureless grey corridor where sunlight had never shone since the day the roof was laid over it.
Signs said RIGER’S WORLD, and listed the names of that planet’s Earthside representatives. What was he doing here? There was no need for him to come in person. He could have sent for any of them; simpler yet, he could have commanded a facsimile of himself to appear in their rooms, spoken as though they stood face to face without having moved. But here he was, and this door was named after Koriot Angoss.
Thorkild paused with his hand almost touching its lockplate. He was Director of the Bridge System. This, like any door in Bridge Centre, would open if he merely set his hand to it. Delaying, he listened.
Fined down to a sharp thin edge by insulation that took out all the bass frequencies: a man, singing. The dialect of Riger’s World was not too far off Standard Earthside usage. The song was bawdy; it told of a drunken libertine whose liquorlively tongue could seduce any woman, yet who failed to live up to her expectations when she yielded. After the first verse, someone with an instrument—it seemed acoustic rather than electronic—chorded in an accompaniment, feeling for the structure of the simple melody.
Thorkild closed the last gap between his hand and the door, and it swung wide.
Like every office in the building, this one was a replica of what might be found on its occupants’ home planet; its modern equipment was disguised behind rough wooden panels, there were cured animal-skins on the floor, vases held locally-cultured flowers of curious green and golden shades. Even the smell of the air was—to the best of Thorkild’s recollection—tolerably authentic. But the Bridge City loomed beyond
the vast glass wall on its far side. It was as though one might look, and not merely travel, from this tired old Earth to its younger and more vigorous daughter-worlds.
Angoss was sitting on a padded, hand-crafted stool with a revolving top. He was an untidy man with wild hair and a grin that showed a gold incisor, gold being common where he came from. It was typical of him that he had retained the prosthetic rather than asking for a regenerated tooth, which on Earth could have been his free of charge. So too was his garb of coarse brown linen shirt and pants and red leather sandals. In one hand he held a mug of pale brown liquid, a kind of beer. On a long padded bench under the window sat his confidential human secretary, Maida Wenge, who was not so contemptuous of Earthside luxuries and wore a silky synthetic garment as smooth and elegant as Thorkild’s own robe. On her lap reposed the instrument he had heard through the door; it was an air-bellows device, an accordion of sorts.
The song ended in surprise—more, Thorkild realised, at the interruption than because he had come through the door that was never used. Of course, on Riger’s doors were still commonplace as a means of entry, and privacy not so highly valued.
Angoss walked himself around on the stool by making crabwise movements with his feet.
“Good day, Director!” he exclaimed, changing back from the dialect in which he had been singing to Standard Earthside. His accent showed slightly, but he had spent most of the past decade on Earth and worn it thin. Besides, the communication made possible by the Bridge System was once again pulling human speech back towards a common standard. He added, “Will you take a jar with us? The brewer is my
cousin, and he sent me a barrel of his best as a year-day gift. I recommend!”
Thorkild shook his head, letting the door swing shut. He stood looking down at Angoss. It wasn’t right. Was it? The way he acted could not possibly be fitting for a man in a post of such responsibility.
But he was unable to speak of right and wrong, fitting and unfitting, because he was unsure whether he was thinking of Angoss—or of himself.
Instead, he said, “You’re sending us a problem, I understand.”
Angoss got to his feet and helped himself to more beer from the barrel. It reposed on his desk, where one might rather have expected to see pictures and documents and tapes concerning work in hand.
this man ever do anything that could properly be called work?
Blowing away an excess of foam, he said, “We don’t have problems on Riger’s. Do we?”
“One at least that you seem anxious to export.” Thorkild spoke evenly, but that cost him effort. “The preacher—what’s his name?”
“Oh, you must mean Rungley,” Maida said, and Angoss gave a derisory snort as he resumed his stool.
“Oh, him! His sect is the Coppersnakes, isn’t it? You can ignore them!” He drank with a slurping noise. “Are you sure you won’t join us? This is first-rate!”
“I haven’t time,” Thorkild said. “And I came here for an answer, a proper answer.”
Angoss parodied a look of hurt pride. “Don’t you trust my evaluation? Aren’t I supposed to be an expert?”
“It’s all very well to say I can ignore him! But I don’t like the sound of what he is, or what he does!”
“Director,” Angoss said with a sigh, “how many crazy preachers have you known arrive by Bridge
with the much publicised intention of converting Earth?”
“Scores! Hundreds, maybe! And a few have given trouble.”
“Rungley won’t be one of the few. Look: the Coppersnakes are an offshoot of a sect which once flourished in Continental North America, result of a bastard crossing between Christianity and an African fertility cult. They handle snakes as proof of faith. They have a built-in check-and-balance mechanism—every so often someone gets bitten and falls sick or dies, and half the congregation changes its collective mind. You slip a few king-cobras, kraits and mambas to Rungley, and inside a week he’ll be in the hospital. Remember he’s used to handling the domesticated snakes the sect took to Riger’s. What you’ve got here on Earth must be a very different matter. Soon as he’s made a fool of himself in public, he’ll more than likely head for home.”
It sounded like a sensible solution. Only… how to explain the haunting terror, the fear that this kind of mad foolhardiness was precisely the sort of thing that the population of weary old Earth might be looking for? In the far past there had been wars; even now there were fatal accidents; and as those grew fewer, there seemed to be more and ever more people in search of the stimulus that only gambling with death could give them—as though death alone could lend any sort of meaning to existence.
Moreover: sensible solutions from a man found in working hours (not long hours, not overly demanding work) boozing with his secretary and singing bawdy folksongs?
Thorkild found words at last. “What’s their strength on Riger’s?”
“They meet in a hand-carpentered wooden hut.” Angoss took another pull at his beer. “Since Rungley
announced he was coming to Earth, they’ve built an annexe to the church. They get maybe sixty to a meeting.”
“Why the hell can’t you keep your archaic survivals to yourself?” Thorkild snapped. He didn’t mean to be so brusque, but he was raw-nerved, and not only from the Rungley problem. Reproachfully Maida looked at him with sombre, dark-pool eyes. She was beautiful by her own world’s standards, but for Earthside tastes too broad in the hips; it had been centuries since giving easy birth was a desirable quality on the mother world… which was, if one thought about it, somewhat ironical.
“You spliced us into the Bridge System,” Angoss said coolly. “You laid down the conditions, take it or leave it. And we took it Didn’t we?”
Almost, Thorkild demanded what the point of that remark was. Then he saw what answer he would get. Abruptly he spun on his heel and departed by the way he had come. Even before the door had closed he heard Angoss say, “Loveling, again—highing the key for my bassest notes have stretched my voice.”
Riger’s World, Platt’s World, Kayowa… the layers above were busier, for Platt’s and Kayowa were currently inviting settlers rather than just visitors. He saw the activity there with his inward eye as he climbed stairs towards his own floor, topmost in the building, where he ruled. The way he punished his limbs by hurrying up the soft steps which gave back no noise at his tread was intended to be a tribute to his youth, designed to bring him gasping to the highest level. He was young for his fantastically responsible post: when he succeeded Saxena, barely forty. All possible candidates had been evaluated, and he had been…
Face it, he told himself. He had been the least unsuitable. But it was always like that nowadays on
Earth. There was never anyone perfectly adapted to any job any more. The jobs had evolved faster than the species that invented them.
At least it was unlikely the strain would undermine him physically. The body he occupied was vastly impressive: nearly two metres tall, hair blond shading to red, eyes piercing blue, build muscular but lean. And this was what people thought of when they thought of Jorgen Thorkild. How could they guess at the weariness which assailed him after barely a year? Psychological strain showed only by hints and clues. Angoss, after their meeting today, would probably be more aware of his true condition than those who worked for him day in, day out, in the same office.