Paths To Otherwhere

Copyright © 1995

James P. Hogan

Chapter Four

      Hugh and Jantowitz received letters confirming that they would be joining an as-yet undesignated project located in New Mexico. Enclosed were plane tickets to Albuquerque/Santa Fe. For a mailing address, they were given a Post Office box number in Los Alamos. Their instructions were to report to the Assistant Chief Personnel Officer in the Administration Building at the TA3 site of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Temporary accommodation had been arranged for them in the town.
      A young, tight-jawed Army captain called Hemel met them at the airport. There were also three other arrivals for the National Laboratory-two men and a woman, all traveling singly. They said little as Hemel and a guard in fatigue dress, carrying an automatic rifle, escorted them from the arrivals concourse.
      The airport had a wartime feel about it, with the National Guard patrolling the terminal building and armored cars on standby outside. Northern New Mexico was not a safe area these days. Urban terrorists driven out of the ghettos by police countermeasures and gang rivalries competed with back-to-the-wild survivalists for territories and spoils. Isolated residences were being abandoned, and some outlying communities lived virtually under siege.
      Outside, a green minibus was waiting, with DEFENSE RESEARCH ADMINISTRATION painted on its sides. In addition to the driver, there was a second guard, occupying a rear-facing seat at the back. Before the bus moved out, Hemel called somewhere by radio and received confirmation that the road was clear. They left the urban area on Highway 25 toward Santa Fe, following the wide, flat valley of the Rio Grande. The crumbling red peaks of the Sandia Range stood jagged through the heat haze to the right. Hugh's main impressions, fresh from the crush and commotion of the Bay Area, were of the vastness, the emptiness, and the dryness.
      Jantowitz, sitting opposite, had maintained his usual taciturnity through most of the trip. He always seemed to dress for winter in Illinois, and had on a mangled black homburg and tan raincoat that he wore with the belt tied behind to avoid the bother of fastening it. A helicopter that had appeared several times passed overhead again. The noise stirred Jantowitz out of whatever thoughts had been preoccupying him. He turned from the window and gestured. "Not much city life here. I told you you should see more there when you could. Young peoples need the chance to make the mistakes to learn from."
      "Oh, I saw all the life I needed," Hugh answered. "Anyway, it'll be healthier here. High-desert climate. Good air. People probably get out a lot."
      "Do you still do the jogging and that kind of thing?" Jantowitz asked the question warily, as if he were inviting a confession.
      "Sure. It's supposed to make you live longer."
      Jantowitz wrinkled his nose. "To me, it has always seemed that the things people do to live longer would give them the least reason for wanting to. Too much health is bad for you, I suspect. Is like money. Too much, then you start the worry that now you lose it, and the worry makes you sick."
      "That's a new one, Theo. I'm not sure what a doctor would say about it, though."
      "Pah! Doctors. What do they know? Just body-mechanics." Jantowitz looked back at the window and told the desert, "Four doctors who tell me to live healthier, I have buried."
      Hugh looked around the bus casually. The two men were talking earnestly in lowered voices near the front. The woman was sitting in a closer seat, reading a typewritten document on a briefcase resting on her knee. Thirtyish, Hugh judged; could be quite attractive if she dressed a little more femininely and didn't look so intense. She sensed him watching her and looked across.
      "Hi," he volunteered. She regarded him blankly, as if he had said something in an obscure dialect of Swahili. The moment dragged like a joke fallen flat at a royal table. "Er, I guess we're both working at the same place. We just got in from California. I'm Hugh."
      Her eyes remained expressionless. "To save us both a lot of time, if you're wondering if I screw, the answer's no," she informed him. "And in any case, I don't like being picked up on busses." With that, she returned to her reading.
      "Well, excuse me. . . ." Hugh looked back out at the distant side of the valley. Scratch one off the list, he told himself.
      At Santa Fe they exited the highway and turned north amid dun-colored, adobe-style houses spread out among sandy hills spattered with juniper, piñon, and desert pine. On the climb up to Los Alamos, the landscape became bleaker and rockier. Deep canyons gouged their way between long fingers of flat-topped mesa. Ahead to the west, the hills rose toward the greater summits of the Jemez Mountains, purple and hazy in the distance.
      Los Alamos, extending ribbonlike along the top of a mesa, appeared suddenly as the bus came over a rise after a winding, uphill section of road. It was young as towns go, most of it dating from within the last half century. There were still some buildings going back to the "secret city" of the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s, but most had been replaced in the growth by a regular, open community that had accompanied the founding and expansion of the National Laboratory in the postwar years. Then, in more recent times, the civilian programs had been gradually axed or hived off to other departments, and the remainder consolidated under the DRA to concentrate on defense-related work. Much of the openness was lost; fences and guard posts appeared around places that had been accessible; in many ways the area had reacquired something of its former character.
      The bus passed the airstrip on the approach into the town, and then traversed the central area, where the World War Two research had been concentrated. Then they followed the extension eastward into more residential surroundings and turned off to the right. Captain Hemel looked back from his seat by the driver. "This is 43rd Street now. That's where you two will be staying until you get something more permanent. It's a private boardinghouse, run by a Mrs. Ryecroft. We know her well. She puts up a lot of people from the Lab."
      They stopped outside an older two-story house, probably going back to the fifties, sheltering from the world and time behind a barricade of laurel and a wicket fence choked with roses. It had been repainted fairly recently, pale yellow with white sills and trim, in a brave attempt to relieve the dusty torpor of the street. The drapes in the windows looked clean but old. A fading Old Glory, discolored by the sun, was painted on the mailbox.
      "Try a little sugar with the acid and razor blades for breakfast next time," Hugh said to the woman with the briefcase as they climbed out.
      While Hemel led the way up the porch steps and rang the doorbell, the driver unloaded the bags. Somewhere inside the house, a dog began yapping. It started off another dog with a deeper bark somewhere across the street. Jantowitz's mouth tightened. Hugh shrugged resignedly. All his life, it seemed, he'd been plagued by yappy dogs.
      There was bustling behind the door, and a female baritone voice yelled, "Shut up, Selby! It's okay." Then the door opened, and Mrs. Ryecroft appeared. "Ahah! You have to be the professor and the doctor. I get professors and doctors all the time. Sometimes I think I could start my own university here." She didn't lower the volume. Her accent was from New England, maybe near Boston.
      She was heavy around the middle, with a large nose, wide mouth, and features that had once been firm now rounding out above the beginnings of a second chin. A white top retained large, sagging breasts, while her lower half was squeezed into pink stretch-slacks that, with her weight, the indecency laws should have had something to say about. In addition, she wore a purple head scarf knotted at the front.
      Hemel introduced everybody and produced a document for her to sign. It made Hugh feel like a package being delivered. Hemel reminded Hugh and Jantowitz that they would be collected at 9:00 the next morning, and then returned to the bus. The driver deposited the last of the bags in the front hallway and followed. Mrs. Ryecroft closed the door. A terrier with hair that looked impenetrable falling over its eyes had singled out Jantowitz for a confrontation and was emitting curious, whirringlike noises, presumably supposed to be snarls.
      "Don't worry about her," Mrs. Ryecroft foghorned. "She'll quieten down when she gets used to you. She's a Yorkshire, so I call her Selby. Selby's a town in Yorkshire, England. I spent a vacation near there with my husband when he was alive. They eat blood pudding for breakfast. Would you believe that?" Jantowitz blinked at her through his heavy-rimmed lenses. Outside, the sound came of the bus starting and pulling away.
      "Did you, er, bring the custom back here?" Hugh asked.
      "You're kidding. I wouldn't give that stuff to Selby." She handed each of them a ring with two keys. "One's for the room. One's for the front door. I lock it at ten. Come on up. I'll show you the rooms now."
      The decor was traditional, striving to preserve its memories: floral carpets; heavy drapes with tasseled ties; vases and brass; pictures of a mountain lake and forest, house by a bridge, dark-skinned girl with flowers. But the inferior staining of the hall table and chairs failed to hide the scratches and patchy repairs. The good furniture had gone. Her world was coming apart-like everything else, everywhere.
      She wheezed up the stairs ahead of them, the expanse of pink stretch-slacks convulsing obscenely. "It's all guests up here. I have my own suite downstairs, past the kitchen. Breakfast is at seven-thirty, dinner at six. Call before five if you want something kept late-they work all hours at the Lab. Visitors are okay, but no drunks, drugs, or smoking in the rooms. The local watch officer will want to know you. He stops by once a week. And remember you've got fourteen days to register your address with the Sheriff's department."
      Jantowitz took the first room, which was across the landing from the top of the stairs. Hugh's was along a short passageway. It was plain but clean, with a double-size bed, wall closet, two upright chairs at a table by the window, and a small writing desk in one corner.
      "This'll be fine," Hugh said.
      "Is there anything you don't eat, any special diets?" Mrs. Ryecroft asked.
      He shook his head. "Pretty much anything's okay with me. I'm an omnivore."
      "I've got Mexican on for tonight, tacos and enchiladas. That okay?"
      "Sounds great."
      She indicated the door across the passage with a wave of her hand. "You've got an English guy called David Wallis in there. Been here a few weeks. He's okay-about your age, I'd say. You'll meet him later when he gets back. He's a university guy too-from a place called Cambridge. Ever been there?"
      "I know of it," Hugh said.
      "The only other person right now is across on the other side of the stairs. Ingram-some kind of engineer. But you don't see much of him."
      "Mrs. Ryecroft." Jantowitz's voice came from his room at the head of the stairs.
      "What?" Her response would have been fitting had he been on the far side of the street.
      Hugh looked out. Jantowitz appeared in his doorway, steering Selby not ungently but firmly around the doorpost with a foot. "Mrs. Ryecroft, I am sorry, but the room is now my space and paid for, and the animals I cannot have. Will you talk to her or whatever it is that you do, please?"
      "Is he gonna be a problem?" Mrs. Ryecroft muttered at Hugh.
      "I think he has an allergy," Hugh whispered, naming the first thing that came to mind. "He's okay."
      "Oh, okay." She bustled away back along the passageway.
      It was defensiveness, Hugh decided. Her noise and bluster tried to present a defiant face, and overcompensated. Underneath it, she was scared and insecure. Everybody was.
      He moved to the window and lifted aside the net to peer out. The room was at the rear of the house. The yard was paved for a short distance, with weeds sprouting through cracks. Farther back was a forgotten lawn with seats and a garden table. Wooden slat fences separated it from adjoining yards to the sides and rear. In one of them, children were playing on a creaky swing set. A small, yapping dog pranced around them. Hugh sighed and let the net fall back again.

Baen Book 10/20/95
Copyright © 1995 by James P. Hogan