Back | Next

The Visible Man

GEORGE ROWAN’S ONLY chance of escape came to him like a benediction, sudden and unlooked for, on the road between Newburyport and Boston.

They were on old Route 1, the Newburyport Turnpike, and there was not another car in sight. The fully automated Route 95 guideway was just a few miles west of here, running almost parallel to Route 1, but for reasons of his own the sheriff had preferred to take the old secondary road, even though he had to drive the car himself and couldn’t possibly get up to guideway speeds. Perhaps he simply enjoyed manual driving. Perhaps it was some old State regulation, now solidified into tradition, that prohibited the transportation of prisoners on automated roads. Perhaps it was just some more of the expected psychological torture, taking the slowest possible route so that Rowan would have time to build up a greater charge of fear and dreadful anticipation for what awaited him in Boston.

For Rowan, the trip had already become interminable. His memory of the jail in Newburyport, of his crime, of his hasty trial, of his past life—all had become hazy and indistinct. It seemed as if he had been riding forever, on the road, going to Boston for the execution of his sentence. Only that was real and vivid: the slight swaying motion of the car, the seat upholstery sticking uncomfortably to his sweat-soaked back, the ridged rubber mat under his feet. The countryside they drove through was flat and empty, trees, meadows, cultivated fields, little streams, sometimes a boarded-up gas station or a long-abandoned roadside stand. The sky was a flat, washed-out blue, and the sunlight was thick and dusty. Occasionally they would bump over a pothole or a stretch of frost-buckled pavement—the State didn’t spend much anymore to keep up the secondary roads. The car’s electric engine made no sound at all, and the interior of the car was close and hot with the windows rolled up.

Rowan found himself reluctantly watching the little motions of the steering wheel, apparently turning all by itself, driverless. That made him shiver. He knew intellectually, of course, that he was sitting on the front seat between the sheriff and the deputy, but he couldn’t see them. He could hear them breathing, and occasionally the deputy’s arm would brush against his own, but, for Rowan, they were invisible.

He knew why they were invisible, but that didn’t make it any less spooky. When the State’s analysis computers had gone down into his mind and found the memories that proved him guilty, they had also, as a matter of course, implanted a very deep and very specific hypnotic injunction: from now on, George Rowan would not be able to see any other living creature. Apparently the injunction had not included trees and other kinds of vegetation, but it had covered animals and birds and people. He assumed that when he “saw” through invisible people—as he now “saw” the portions of the car that should have been blocked from sight by the sheriffs body—it was because his subconscious mind was extrapolating, creating a logical extension of the view from other visual data in order to comply with the spirit of the injunction. Nothing must be allowed to spoil the illusion. Nor could Rowan break it, although he knew what it was and how it had been created. It was too strong, and planted too deep. He was “blind” in a special and insidious way.

There were a number of apparently sound reasons for doing this to convicted criminals. It made it almost impossible for a prisoner to escape or to resist his captors, for one thing, and the State psychologists also claimed that the resultant sense of supernatural isolation would engender an identity crisis in the prisoner, and so help contribute to his rehabilitation. Totally “blinding” the prisoners would accomplish both objectives in a more logical way. But the State administrators had been growing increasingly perverse over the years, and they chose the cruelest way. How much more terrible a thing this was than total blindness—to make the victim live in a sunlit empty world, haunted by ghosts and voices, pushed and punished by unseen forces, never knowing who was with him or what they were about to do to him. So the State men inflicted this on prisoners because it was cruel and they enjoyed it, just as they would enjoy torturing Rowan in Boston, driving him insane again and again in the name of psychological rehabilitation.

At that moment, past Topsfield but not yet up to the Putnamville Reservoir, their right front tire blew out.

They went into a terrifying spin. The world dissolved into a whirling blur, and bursts of sunlight jabbed Rowan’s face like a strobe light as they spun. The car hit the guardrail, spun out into the middle of the road again, spun back to hit the guardrail a second time. In the midst of the roar and the clatter and impact, Rowan had time to think that it would be better for him if he was killed in the crash, and time to realize that in spite of everything he did not want to die. Then the car was spinning out into the road, spinning back again. This time there was no guardrail to catch it. The car went careening off the road, fishtailing and losing momentum as it plowed through the deep soft loam of the shoulder, and dived into a shallow ditch.

The dashboard leaped up and whammed into Rowan, but he managed to catch the blow on his arms and shoulders; the impact beat him black-and-blue, but did no lasting damage. In the same instant, as he was hitting the dashboard, he saw the windshield above the driver’s seat star and shatter, and the invisible deputy was thrown heavily against him. The car recoiled from the impact, slid a foot or two sideways, and canted to the left. Everything was still for a heartbeat, and then the car groaned and settled, canting over even more. The noise of the springs died away.

There was a strangely peaceful silence.

The car was resting head down at a forty-five-degree angle, listing badly to the left but not quite turned all the way over on its side. Rowan took a deep, shaky breath and decided that he was alive. The sheriff might not be. He was still invisible to Rowan, but it was obvious that he had been thrown partially through the windshield. Rowan had ended up leaning against the sheriff’s hip, and if his hips were at a level with the steering wheel then the rest of his body had to be protruding through the windshield. And there was blood on the glass. From the feel of it, the deputy seemed to be slumped over with his head almost in Rowan’s lap, stirring feebly, stunned but still alive. No conscious cogitation went on in Rowan’s mind, but as the deputy pushed against him and tried to sit up, Rowan raised his manacled hands and smashed them down on what he hoped was the deputy’s head. The first blow hit something soft, and the deputy began struggling weakly, but the second blow bit bone. The deputy stopped fighting. Rowan struck him again, and he stopped moving at all.

Rowan sat quietly for a second, his breath hissing harshly in his throat, and then patted the deputy with his hands until he touched a jingly metal object. As he lifted it away from the deputy, it became visible for him, and yes, it was a key ring. He used one of the keys to unlock his handcuffs, and spent another few seconds searching the deputy for a gun; he didn’t find one, and decided that he couldn’t afford to waste any more time. He climbed over the deputy, rolled the side window down, and pulled himself up out of the car.

He jumped down to the ground, lost his footing on the grassy slope, and went to his knees. For a moment, he remained kneeling, blinking in the raw hot sunlight, dirt under his fingers. Everything had happened too fast; only now, this instant with the sun in his face, did it become real for him—he was outside, he was free, he had a chance. Hope and terror exploded inside Rowan. He rose into a crouch, scanning his surroundings with a sudden feral intensity. Then he scrambled up the incline. At the top of the slope he paused only long enough to make sure no cars were coming before he dashed across the road and slid down into another ditch in an avalanche of dust and scree. A man-high expanse of grass and wildflowers stretched away from the road on this side. It closed over Rowan like the sea.

At first, he ran flat-out, fast as he could go, the high grass whipping around him, wild with fear and exhilaration. He kept running until his breath was gone and he was staggering rather than sprinting, and then a root snagged his foot and the ground reached up to catch him, smack, like an outfielder catching a fly ball. He lay spread-eagled, flat on his face against the damp earth, gasping for air while everything seemed slowly to spin, the resin-smelling grass tickling his nose, tiny furtive insects scampering invisibly across his hands. When he could breathe again, he found that some of his panic had also gone. He sat up. He’d been leaving a trail like a goddamned elephant; he’d have to start being a little slier. If he trampled the grass and left a flattened wake behind him, it would be like a giant arrow pointing the way he had gone. He wouldn’t last an hour that way before the cops ran him down. He set off at a diagonal to his former path, picking his way with care, forcing himself to be slow. This way, perhaps he had a chance. More than he’d had a while ago, at least.

Rowan reached a stand of scrub woods and pushed his pace up to a fast trot, taking a few more headers as the terrain got rougher. Every time the tree branches moved in the wind all the patterns of light and darkness would flow and reform, and he kept mistaking shadow for ground. Once he dropped four feet down a concealed embankment. He kept up the pace. If he broke an ankle he was finished, but he couldn’t afford to slow down either. They’d almost certainly catch him if they fielded a search party anytime soon. But Route 1 was infrequently patroled, that was in his favor, and the Boston people wouldn’t miss the sheriff for a while yet. If only he could get even an hour’s lead—

After a few minutes, the woods began to die away into a region of small isolated trees and high bramble thickets. Rowan slid down a final bluff and found himself in someone’s alfalfa field. His second wind was long gone, and now every breath brought him a stab of pain in his side. He began to work his way around the field, skirting the outermost furrow. He walked slowly and painfully. Sweat had dried uncomfortably on his skin, making him itch, and his clothes were full of burrs and stickers. On the horizon, he could just make out the peaked roof of a farm building, thumbnail-small from here, gray tile glinting in the sun. A thin column of smoke rose black from a chimney, making a long lazy line across the sky. Rowan was halfway across the field, his shoes filling with loam at every step, when a dog began to bark in the distance.

Rowan walked faster, but the barking became louder and closer. A goddamn watchdog then, definitely coming after him. He faced around, at bay, too beat-out to run for the tree line.

The barking swelled into an angry challenging roar, and then cut off, ominous and abrupt. Impossible to tell which way it was coming in at him, he thought, and at that same instant felt a flash of searing pain as his pants leg was torn away by something invisible. Rowan cursed and kicked out wildly. His foot scored a solid hit on something, and the dog yelped. Rowan kicked out again, missed completely, and had to do a lurching gracestep to recover his balance. Pawprints appeared in the soft loam as the dog danced back out of range. Rowan realized that if he kept near the furrow he’d be able to track the dog’s movements in the loam. So when a line of pawprints came rushing directly in toward him like the wake of a torpedo, he judged his distance carefully and then lashed out with all his strength. His foot hit something with the clean, solid whump of a dropkicked football. The dog yelped again. It was apparently lifted off its feet by the impact and sent rolling across the top of the furrow—at least, that was how Rowan interpreted the sudden flattening of alfalfa and scattering of loam. Rowan started walking again, with great deliberation. Judging by the sound, the dog continued to trace snarling figure-eights around him at a safe distance, but it did not attack again.

Rowan scrambled up into the scrub brush on the far side of the field and started off again, limping slightly, unwilling to take time to tend to the bite. If only he dared to rest. All his instincts told him to go to ground, find a sheltered spot in the deep woods and hide. But that would never work. They’d fly over the nearby forested areas with infrared heat sensors and spot him at once—there were no animals the size of a man left in the Massachusetts woods, any large trace would unequivocally be the fugitive. No, he would have to go to a town, where his heat-trace would be lost among those of other people. But the towns were the very place where he’d be the most helpless, and the most exposed.

He crossed another cultivated field—seeing only a tractor moving far away across acres of soughing green-and-yellow grain—and then the ground began to turn porous and swampy, water oozing up to fill his footprints as soon as he had made them. At last he was faced with an actual stretch of marshland, miles of reeds and cat-o’-nine-tails interlaced with gleaming fingers of water. He was forced to turn more to the east to skirt it. Walking by the edge of the marsh, he could hear the whining of millions of mosquitoes, but could see none of them, even when they bit him. Occasionally there would be a splash and a little gout of water alongside him as he passed—frogs hopping off the bank to get out of his way, he assumed. Other unseen things rustled through the reeds around him. On the larger ponds, he could see the surface of the water wrinkle into a crumped leaf pattern as waterbirds landed or took off, but he couldn’t see the birds themselves. The air was full of invisible wings. Rowan found all of this so uncanny that he detoured, shivering, far enough to the north to get away from the marsh entirely. The ground began to rise again. There were cuts in the sides of hillocks here, and planed-off places, evidence of recent road-building. He pushed through a weed-choked scrub woodlot, and found himself on a bluff overlooking one of those strange suburban housing developments that seem to sprout up out of nowhere in the rural areas of Massachusetts, unconnected with anything and with no viable reason for existence.

Rowan’s throat went dry. This would be the first major hurdle. He descended the bluff.

At least there didn’t seem to be anybody around, Rowan thought, and then grimaced at his own fatigue-engendered stupidity. There could be a crowd within ten feet of him, or a posse armed to the teeth, and he’d never know it until the first shot went home. He started walking slowly along a sidewalk, heading for the crossroads he could see on the other side of the housing development. This seemed to be a fairly new complex. The lawns were still smears of ugly red clay, surrounded by hopeful little string fences that were somehow supposed to keep birds from eating the newly-planted grass seeds, and there had not yet been time for the basements to fill up with marshwater or the paint to peel off in the bitter sea wind. Maybe most people had gone to work, leaving only a few housepersons here and there, and maybe they would stay inside. His foot struck something.

“Hey!” said a voice, at the level of his elbow.

Rowan froze.

“Hey, mister,” the voice said, reproachfully, “you knocked over all my soldiers.”

A child. Rowan forced himself to think. “I’m sorry, son,” he said.

“The whole army!”

“I didn’t see you,” Rowan said, truthfully, “I’m sorry I messed up your army.”

Suspicious silence from the boy.

“I wasn’t thinking about where I was going,” Rowan said. That got a huhn sound out of the boy, who didn’t sound entirely mollified. The boy must have stood up then, as some of the toy soldiers he’d been touching became visible for Rowan, varicolored plastic figures lying askew on the sidewalk. Rowan hesitated, and then asked, “Which one of those roads leads to Hamilton?”

“That one.”

Wonderful. “The paved one?” Rowan asked cannily, and when the boy didn’t answer he pointed and said, “That one there?”

“Uh-huh,” the boy said. The tone of puzzled suspicion was back in the child’s voice. There was something odd about this grownup. The boy didn’t respond when Rowan thanked him, but from the little scraping noises Rowan heard he guessed that the boy had sat down and begun to move his soldiers about again. The child had lost interest in Rowan. There was something odd about all grownups, and Rowan wasn’t unusual enough to provoke more than a mild passing wonderment.

Rowan started off again. “You stepped on my fort!” the child wailed instantly. Ignoring him, Rowan kept walking. He maintained a brisk pace, keeping close to the curb and hoping that anyone coming up the sidewalk in the opposite direction would have room to pass him without contact. In this fashion, he managed to make it through the development without further incident, and onto the road that led, hopefully, to Hamilton. Surely a search party would be out after him by now; if he didn’t find a town to lose himself in, he’d be finished. There were no sidewalks here, and no traffic on this one-lane back road, and if he kept to the center of it the chances of colliding with someone out for a stroll were remote. He walked as fast as he could without actually breaking into a suspicion-provoking run.

When the housing development was hidden by a curve, he increased his pace to a fast trot. He could be jogging, couldn’t he? And besides, there was no help for it: his time was running out. The road began to climb, winding among small rolling hillocks, and the forest closed down on either side. Once a dog came down from some house set back in the trees, and yapped after him for a few hundred yards, but didn’t attack. About ten minutes after the dog gave up the chase, he came upon another house, this one set back from the road and climbing partway up a low hillside. There was a bicycle lying next to the road on the wide front lawn. Someone might be watching from the house, but Rowan decided that he’d have to take that chance. He walked casually over to the bicycle, set it upright in the road, mounted it, and rode unhurriedly away until the house was out of sight. Then he began to pump.

The bicycle was too small for him, but not small enough to make the proposition impossible. It wobbled some, but he sent it whizzing along as fast as he was physically able to peddle. It rattled and creaked in protest, but it held together. Somehow he also managed to keep the thing upright and stay on top of it. The bicycle wasn’t a racer, but Rowan was a powerful man, and more important, a desperate man, and he got it up to a pretty respectable clip. He could cover twice the ground now that he could on foot, and he felt a thrill of real hope. Rowan peddled through the hills for a while, and then the country began to level out. Here the road intersected a somewhat larger secondary road, two lanes instead of one.

Guessing at the direction of Hamilton, he turned onto the larger road. It was flat and straight, and Rowan made even better time. Dust boiled up from the pavement as he passed, and hung in the still air behind him in long wavering lines. Thank God for the guideways, Rowan thought—traffic was light even on the larger manual roads. He only encountered one car, going in the opposite direction, its steering wheel apparently turning by itself. He had to caution himself not to stare at it as it passed. Then he was alone on the road again, with only the squeak and rattle of the bicycle for company. After a while, houses began to appear more frequently by the side of the road, and there were cross-streets every so often, with overhead traffic lights at the intersections. He was barreling across one such intersection at full tilt when he crashed into something unseen but very solid.

The impact hurled Rowan from the bicycle head over heels. He hit the street, rolled, skidded along on his side and jarred to a stop against the curb. By the time he understood what was happening, he was resting on his elbows in the road and staring up at the sky, dazed and shaken. He was badly scraped along his arms and legs, and bits of gravel had been embedded under his skin by the force of the fall. Rubber-legged, he got up. There was a groan of pain from the unseen something he’d hit, and then it said a pithy word. A man, then. Some pedestrian had been crossing the road and he’d smashed into him. The bicycle was shoved clatteringly aside, and Rowan assumed that the man was getting to his feet.

“What are you, blind?” the man raged. “You sorry son-of-a-bitch!”

“I’m sorry, but you stepped right out—”

“You had plenty of room! You had miles of room!” The voice wavered slightly as it climbed in register: an elderly man, then. “What’s a’matter, you ain’t got eyes in your head? You could’ve turned! I swear I’ll sue you, you hear that? Knock me down, almost break my back—”

“Don’t frazzle off, old friend,” Rowan said nastily. Soft-talk wouldn’t work. He had to be truculent and menacing or he’d be arguing with this guy for hours. Play it like a young tough, a weep maybe. “It was just an accident, right? You scan that? Only an accident. So don’t give me the rest of this fargo, because I don’t want to hear it.”

“I’ve got a mind to have you run in, you son-of-a-bitch.”

“Shove it. You know, you could get hurt a lot worse, jobbie.”

There had been an edge in Rowan’s voice—the man sputtered, but remained silent. Rowan swaggered over to the bicycle, feeling self-conscious but playing it up. The bicycle didn’t seem to be significantly damaged, although the frame was a little bent and the handlebars had been knocked out of alignment. He twisted them back into true, climbed onto the bicycle and shoved off. When Rowan was a safe distance away, the man shouted after him, “Goddamn idiot! I hope somebody cuts your balls off!”

Wobbling more than before, Rowan peddled down the road. He had to think of something else soon. He was entering the outskirts of a town, and the chances of hitting another invisible pedestrian increased with every revolution of the bicycle wheels. And now he thought he could hear the thin keening of sirens high in the sky behind him, an eerie sound that might have been made by demons of the upper air. They were coming after him, and he was much too conspicuous bicycling down this traffic-free road. Just as he was about to ditch the bicycle, he topped a rise and came upon a truck waiting on a red light at an intersection, one of the moderate-sized vans still used for hauling freight between small cities not serviced by guideways. Rowan’s eyes narrowed in instant calculation. Carefully, he coasted to a stop squarely behind the truck, where he would be out of range of the driver’s mirror. He dismounted, picked up the bicycle and threw it into a tangle of high weeds and bushes by the roadside. Then, as the light changed and the truck started to accelerate, he leaped up and grabbed the edge of the latched tailgate.

The truck’s van was protected only by a hanging tarpaulin. Rowan brushed it back, pulled himself over the tailgate and tumbled inside. He landed on something with hard edges, squirmed aside, and came to rest on the vibrating metal floor. They continued to gather speed, gears growling—evidently the driver had not seen him come aboard. Rowan sank back on his haunches, and then stretched out as well as he could among the sealed boxes and crates, pillowing his head with his arms. He had never been so tired. The hard metal floor felt as soft as thistledown. He felt himself sinking into it, sinking down luxuriantly. Grimly, he forced his eyelids wide again and made a great effort to stay awake. He had been given an opportunity to think things through without the pressure of split-second decisions; he should be trying to formulate long-range plans, plot out a plan of action instead of just running aimlessly away. But his brain had turned to ash, and he could not think. Besides, where was there to go? Who was there who could help him? His friends were all back in Newburyport, and that old life seemed even more distanced and inconsequential than it had this morning, his old acquaintances only hazy figures from an almost-forgotten dream. Dream-men, phantasms, they could not help him. The floor was spinning, slowly and restfully. He knew it was a terrible mistake to doze, but he could no longer fight it. He fell asleep.

He was awakened by a harsh, frightening sound: the rattle and clank of the tailgate being unlatched.

Rowan pulled himself up out of evil, smothering dreams. When his eyes unblurred, he saw only a rectangular green thing with glowing edges, and it took him a moment to realize that it was the tarpaulin, with light leaking in around the sides. At first, he didn’t realize that the truck had stopped. Then he heard the tailgate thump as it was swung down. He sat up, terrified and floundering, still only half-understanding where he was. The tarpaulin was yanked aside. Blinking around the sudden influx of light, Rowan was astonished to see that no one was there. Then he remembered, in an intense, sickening flash, and had to adjust himself to it all over again, as he would have to every morning for whatever remained of his life.

“You floorsucker!” a voice said.

Before Rowan could move, he was seized by hard invisible hands, hauled from the truck—getting a brief dizzy glimpse of concrete, a high metal ceiling, arc lights—and set on his feet. The hands released him.

“I—” Rowan started to say. His vision exploded into shooting white sparks, pain lanced through his head. He reeled back against the truck and almost fell. His mouth filled with blood.

“Whatta y’think y’doin?” the voice said, harsh with rage. “You scupping thief!”

Pain had jolted Rowan fully awake. Instantly, he lashed out with his fist, aiming at the spot from which the voice had seemed to emanate. He missed completely, his arm scything the air, and took a hard punch to the stomach from his unseen adversary. It knocked the wind out of him and drove him back against the edge of the lowered tailgate. It was hopeless, he realized through a wave of nausea. He couldn’t win.

The next blow laid Rowan’s cheek open and threw him sideways to the concrete floor. He went along with the fall, augmented it, and rolled over twice very quickly. Then he scrambled to his feet and ran.

Someone shouted hoarsely behind him. Rowan kept running, heading for the far side of what was apparently an underground garage. Halfway across, he slammed into something solid but yielding; another invisible person. There was a gasp of surprise and pain, and the clatter of dropped tools. Probably he’d bowled the man over. Rowan himself staggered and nearly fell, but recovered his balance and kept on. He was sprinting with his head down now, dodging and weaving like a broken-field runner. More shouts behind him. Invisible hands clutched at him for a moment, but he broke free. A door seemed to spring up in front of him. He clawed it open and sprang through.

He found himself in a long, fluorescent corridor, the cold white light coming evenly from ceiling, walls and floor. He sprinted away to the left, followed the corridor to a fork, picked a branch at random and kept running. Then another fork, and another corridor. He found a door marked Employees Only, went down a small service stairway, through another network of corridors, and down another stairway to the bottom.

The corridor he emerged into this time was dingier than the others, faded tile and green-painted stone, lit by hanging overhead bulbs. There was a smell of damp in the air, and the stone walls sweated like toads. Rowan paused to rest, gasping and leaning against the doorframe. When his breathing evened enough to let him hear again, he listened for sounds of pursuit. Nothing. He’d lost them. And this was a basement corridor, few people would be traveling it. And now, he knew where he was. Even in flight, he had had time to recognize the trademark insignia embossed into the walls of the upper corridors—he was in one of the big shopping plaza complexes near Danvers. But how was he going to get out of here? There were sure to be thousands of people about in the complex; as soon as he came up out of the deserted basement corridors he would inevitably run into some of them. The faded denim pants and blue work-shirt he wore were not damning in themselves, but would certainly be a giveaway to anyone actively searching for an escaped prisoner. Somehow, he had to get a change of clothes.

Rowan started walking again, cautiously threading his way through a warren of basement corridors that seemed endless. Occasionally there were doors set in either wall, always locked and bolted. Storerooms, probably. From behind a few of the locked doors came the solemn, deep-throated chuffing of massive machinery, or, more rarely, a vibrant unwavering hum. Eventually, he passed into what seemed to be an older section of the complex. Here huge ceramic-covered pipes ran along the ceiling close overhead, the floor was rutted, and there were patches of mold on the walls. Some of the overhead lights were broken, and Rowan walked on through semi-darkness until he came to a door marked Maintenance at the junction of two shabby corridors. From behind this door came an unmistakable sound: someone snoring.

Quivering with tension, Rowan put his ear to the thin plastic door-panel. The only sound he could hear was the rhythmical snoring. He’d have to chance it. Carefully, he tried the door. It wasn’t locked. He inched it open until a hinge gave a loud rusty squawk, then he pulled the door wide and stepped briskly into the room.

It was a small chamber with faded opalescent walls, smelling of sweat and old clothes and bozuk. Two walls were covered with dials, meters, readouts and tell-me-twices. A dusty computer terminal and a slave board stood in that corner. Most of the room was taken up by a dilapidated sink-cooker combination and a scarred folding table heaped with filthy biodegradable plates that had been re-used instead of catalyzed. In another corner was a much-patched waterbed. Flies drummed noisily against the walls, seeking a way out.

As Rowan entered the room, the snoring cut abruptly off. A man-shaped dent in the waterbed began to work itself back to level. Someone was getting up. “What?” said a cracked, quavery voice: another old man. “Whatta’y’want? Who—” The dent disappeared; the man must be on his feet now. “Inspection, jobbie,” Rowan said slyly, “special orders from the manager,” using the custodian’s resultant hesitation to get a few steps nearer. Then he leaped.

The custodian screamed. Rowan ended up with a double-handful of cloth—a shirt?—which immediately tore away in his grasp, lunged again and felt his hand close around a bony wrist. He twisted it. The custodian screamed again. Rowan felt the custodian’s free hand pound against the side of his head, and then they were wrestling each other in a drunken circle across the floor. The table went over with a great smash and clatter of plates. The custodian was still screaming. What a racket they were making! “Shut up, you!” Rowan shouted inanely, then managed to get a hand around the custodian’s invisible throat. Ignoring a rain of wild windmill blows, Rowan throttled him into submission.

When the custodian went limp, Rowan let him slide to the floor. Suddenly everything was amazingly quiet. Swaying and gasping for breath, Rowan was washed over by a prickly wave of shame. He was pretty good at beating up old men, wasn’t he? Suppose he’d killed the old guy? Apprehensively, Rowan crouched and felt about until he located the custodian, touching long invisible hair the texture of matted straw, and a scraggly beard—some ancient hippie given a makework job by the complex then, a bozuk addict probably. Rowan felt for a heartbeat. It was there—papery and labored, but there.

Relieved, Rowan began to search the custodian. Nothing—he was wearing some kind of frilly smock or dress without pockets. But on a night-stand near the waterbed Rowan found an odd leather object, and realized after a moment’s thought that it must be a “wallet.” Inside the old wallet were several unusual photographs, an identification card—with an embossed picture of the old man on it, unfortunately—a credit strip, and a nearly exhausted monthly commuter ticket. Rowan examined the credit strip and bit his lip in frustration. The custodian didn’t have much of a debit margin, not nearly as much as Rowan had hoped for. Not enough to buy a ticket out of the country or even out of the state, not enough to rent a car, or get an identity-scramble or an apartment to hole up in, so that was the end of those particular fantasies. And there wasn’t enough left of the commuter ticket even to get him to Boston.

The custodian began to moan. Rowan paced over, located him again, and lifted his fist to clip him. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it—the old man was so frail, it might kill him. Swearing at his squeamishness, Rowan dragged the feebly-struggling custodian to a closet, muscled him into it, and braced a chair against the door to keep it closed. “Hey!” the custodian shouted, and began to rattle the doorknob furiously. “Shut up,” Rowan growled in self-conscious toughness, “or I’ll come in there and tear your head off.” The custodian shut up.

Rowan returned to the computer terminal. He’d have to do the best he could with what he had. He thought for a minute, then activated the terminal and dialed for the catalog of one of the big stores overhead. He computed sums in his head. Just enough. He inserted the coded credit slip into the slot and carefully punched out an order on the keyboard. The computer winked an acknowledgment light at him, and printed Five Minutes across the readout in green phosphorescent letters.

Sighing, Rowan leaned back in the chair to wait. Now that the immediate pressure was off, he realized how exhausted he was, how sore and battered and torn. His split lip ached fiercely, as did his lacerated cheek and his scraped arms. But most of all, he was tired. The room seemed to blur in and out of existence, and Rowan pulled up out of the nod just in time to keep his head from cracking against the terminal board. He’d almost fallen asleep. Stiffly, he got up. He was still rubber-legged, and very weak. Hunger was part of it. He literally could not remember the last time he’d eaten—sometime during his stay at the Newburyport jail, he supposed, but his memories of that ordeal were murky and confused. It could have been days. And he was intolerably thirsty.

He rummaged through the cubicle in search of food, but found nothing except a bar of VitaGel and a half-empty bottle of Joy. Grimacing with distaste, he ate the gluey bar, and then cautiously tried a sip of Joy. The euphoric effect hit him instantly, making him lightheaded and giddy. Reluctantly, he put the bottle aside—he couldn’t afford to get frazzled. There didn’t seem to be any cups at all in the place, but he polished a small plate as well as he could with his sleeve and used it to get a drink of rusty water from the tap. The Joy was making his head buzz. He had an odd feeling of unreality and déjà vu, and a sudden strong intuition that the old custodian was about to speak. Just at that moment, the custodian said “Hey, man, you’re never going to get away with this, you know that?” and Rowan subvocalized the last few words along with him, the feeling of déjà vu returning ten-fold. “Shut up, jobbie,” Rowan growled, still with the feeling that he was reading something from a prepared script, “I really shouldn’t be keeping you alive at all, scan?” The old man quieted again, but Rowan’s head remained full of odd echoes, as if everything were doubled or tripled, crowding the room with ghosts and reflections. He never should have touched that goddamned Joy.

The terminal flashed its mauve warning light while Rowan was washing his face in the sink basin. His order thumped down the pneumatic shute into the hopper. Rowan quickly dried his face with his shirt. The water had cleared his head a little, and he looked much more presentable with the dirt and dried blood washed away. Feeling almost jaunty, he stripped off the rest of his clothes and padded over to pick up the package.

The package contained a nondescript shirt, some cloth pants, an overcoat, a hat, a pair of dark glasses, and a cane. If he must cope with being “blind,” then let him be a “blind man.” One of the hard-core blind, too low-caste to qualify for a TVSS. He would attract much less suspicion that way—the pose would explain why he was continually bumping into people, and he hoped that the Purloined Letter syndrome would also work to his advantage. At the least, he would be more difficult to spot.

Rowan dressed hurriedly and left the room. He wouldn’t have much time to get clear of the complex before an alarm was raised. The chair he’d braced under the doorknob was only made of hard plastic, and already, as Rowan hesitated in the corridor, he could hear the custodian attempting to break out of the closet. He really should have killed the old man—later he would probably have cause to regret that he had not. He set out through the warren of basement corridors.

He’d decided that it would be best to try to retrace his steps, but within a few moments he was hopelessly lost. A series of locked doors and blocked-off corridors gradually herded him in an entirely different direction, and he wandered through the old stone maze for what seemed like hours. Finally, just as he was beginning to despair, he located an unlocked service stairway.

At the top of the stairway, he stepped through a door and found himself in another of the fluorescent upper corridors. He struck out along it, remembering to tap the floor in front of him with his cane, and bumped into someone almost immediately.

“Oh, excuse me!” a voice said; a woman this time. “I guess I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“That’s perfectly all right, missy,” Rowan said politely, and started to tap his way along again. There was no interference, no alarm.

Goddamn, it was going to work after all, wasn’t it!

A few yards further on, he found one of the main stairways, and followed it up. He was suddenly claustrophobic, the whole subterranean complex pressing down on him with miles of corridors and stairs, steel, concrete, rock, plastic, dead black earth. God, to get out

Sunlight struck him in the face.

It was still the same day, Rowan realized bemusedly, staring at the sky. Just a little while ago he had been on his way to Boston for the execution of his sentence. That had been years ago, it seemed. Decades ago. A lifetime. But the position of the sun showed that it had been barely four hours. Time enough, Rowan thought. Surely an active hunt for him was underway by now.

Rowan had come out onto a landscaped mall, pyramidal buildings rearing high all around, windows flashing like hydra eyes in the sun. Hundreds of people were moving invisibly all around him; he could sense their presence as a nearly subliminal susurrus composed primarily of footsteps and voices. This type of shopping complex was potentially obsolete—the existence of house-to-store pneumatic networks should have killed them as dead as the dinosaurs. But this was an underpopulated region, where most of the homes still didn’t have computer terminals; so far, downtown Boston was the closest area to have been completely converted to the system. It took time for advanced technology to disseminate across a society. And herd instinct was also a factor. With the commercial heart eaten out of the smaller towns, people gathered at the shopping plazas as earlier peoples had gathered at wells or watering-holes or drive-in restaurants, and for the same reasons: to gossip, to court, to meet friends, or just to have someplace to go at night. On a sunny day like this, there could easily be ten thousand people circulating through the complex, and somehow Rowan would have to get by them all.

He launched himself away from the shelter of a building, like a swimmer kicking off for a race, was jostled repeatedly, and realized that he was trying to buck a stream of pedestrian traffic going in the opposite direction. Obediently, Rowan turned around and let the pressure of that stream sweep him along, trusting that people would make allowances for a blind man and not crowd him too closely. The stream hurried him through the mall and into a covered walkway between buildings. Here, suddenly confined, the murmur of crowd-noises swelled into a roar. Clacking footsteps echoed and re-echoed from the low ceiling, voices reverberated hollowly—all sound became fuzzy and directionless, as though he were in a cave under the sea. Again the air seemed full of invisible wings. He could almost feel them beating around his ears, hemming him in, wrapping him in gossamer.

Suddenly dizzy, Rowan sat down on a bench. He found that his heart was beating fast with irrational terror. His nerves were giving under the strain, he told himself as he fought down another attack of claustrophobia. He couldn’t take much more. Slowly, he calmed himself. At least his disguise seemed to be working.

Someone touched his arm. “You’re an escaped convict, aren’t you?”

Rowan gasped. He would have jumped up and bolted instantly, but now the hand was on his wrist, holding him down. He half-turned, shifting his grip on the cane so that he could use it as a club.

“Hold it!” the unseen someone said in a low, urgent voice. “Don’t run. Calm down, son—I’m on your side.”

Rowan hesitated. “This is some kind of mistake—”

“No it’s not,” the other man said dryly. “You’re pretending to be blind, aren’t you? That’s a good one, it hasn’t been used much the last few years. You might get away with it. But don’t just tap right in front of your feet, the way you’ve been doing. That’s a dead giveaway. Keep your cane swinging steadily from side to side as you tap. Remember, you’re supposed to be feeling your way along with it, like a bug does with his antennas, right? And don’t walk so fast. Be a little more uncertain about it, son, listen more, as if you’re trying for auditory clues. And for God’s sake, stop staring at things. And tracking them! It’s obvious you can see through those damn glasses. You won’t last an hour that way.”

Rowan opened his mouth, closed it again. “Who are you?” he said.

“It’s a real stroke of luck, me being able to spot you,” the other man said, ignoring him. “I hoped you’d show up in this area, and I’ve been cruising around for an hour trying to pick you up. Logical, in a way, prisoners making for a place like this, cops don’t seem to think that way though. Luckily for you. Still, we’re going to have to jump to get you out of here. But don’t you worry—you just listen to me, now, and you’ll be all right. I’m on your side, son.”

“I wasn’t aware that I had a side,” Rowan said wearily.

“You do now, son, you do now. Whether you like it or not. The enemy of my enemy, right?” As the man was saying this, Rowan had a sudden vivid mental picture of how he must look: a small, intense man of middle years with a foxy, florid face and hair like wire brush. “Listen, now,” the man said, “we haven’t got much time. You know Quincy Park in Beverly? Just down the coast a ways from Dane Street Beach?”

Rowan realized, to his own surprise, that he did know Quincy Park. He could mistily visualize it, the trees, the long grassy slope down to the seawall, the rocky beach, the ocean—he must have passed through there at one time, long ago. “Yeah, I know it,” he said.

“Well, you just get there before dark. Get there somehow, whatever you do, if you want to keep on living. It’s a station on the Underground Railroad, one we haven’t used in a long while. They won’t be watching it. I’ll call up ahead and arrange it, and there’ll be a sailboat waiting for you just offshore at Quincy Park. You get on her, they’ll take you up the coast, you’ll be safe in Canada by morning. Right? But listen—you’ve got to make the connection the first time. The boat’ll only wait until dark, and we won’t send it back there two evenings in a row. You understand? But if you make it to the boat, why, you’ll be all right then. You’ll be fine.”


“No, listen now, boy, I mean really OK. We’ll get you down to Bolivia. The insurrectionists have got equipment at La Paz as good as anything they’ve got in Boston. They’ll break the injunction and you’ll be normal again. They’ve done it a hundred times—you don’t think you’re the only political prisoner ever to escape, do you? And they’ve got plenty of use for good men down there. So you just concentrate on getting to Beverly, and you’ll be OK. Keep up the blind man act, it’s your best bet.”

“Wait a minute—why can’t you just drive me over there now?”

“Too risky. They’ll be checking private cars before long, but they might not stop public transportation. Besides, I’ve got to lead them away from here before they close the ring on you. Now look—you wait around a minute, then head out of here, east. I’m going to intercept one of the patrol sweeps and tell them that I saw you bicycling west, heading for North Reading or Middleton, maybe. They know you stole a bicycle, but they don’t know yet that you ditched it. They’ll bite. And that’ll give you a better chance to make it out of here. Good luck, son.”

“But what if—” Rowan found himself talking to empty air; the man was gone. Rowan sat and puzzled at it for a while, then shrugged. What other choice did he have? He got up and tapped his way through the invisible crowds, surreptitiously following painted arrows to the tubetrain stop, trying to comply with the behavioral pointers his benefactor had given him. He did feel more in character that way, he discovered, and more secure.

While he was waiting for the tubetrain, he again heard the wild keening of sirens in the sky, very loud and terrible, swelling until it seemed they must be directly overhead. Rowan didn’t look around. Doggedly, he leaned on his cane and waited. The sound of the sirens faded away into distance, was gone. Rowan realized that his legs were trembling. He leaned more heavily on the cane.

The tubetrain arrived. He let it swallow him, shoved his commuter ticket into the computer, and tapped his way to a seat, hoping he wouldn’t pick one that was already occupied. He did, but the occupant immediately muttered an apology and moved to another seat. Deference to the blind. It was wonderful. Rowan sat down.

It was odd to ride in an apparently empty tubetrain, and yet at the same time hear all around you a hundred little noises—rustling papers, coughing, footsteps, voices—that proved you were not alone at all. Rowan kept staring out the window at the bland green countryside, then remembering that he was supposed to be blind and looking self-consciously away. He was thinking about what the man at the shopping plaza had said, replaying his words like a tape, analyzing them, sniffing at every nuance of meaning. Only now, after the fact, was he beginning to believe that there might be some truth to what he had been told—that there really was an Underground Railroad, that there would be a boat waiting for him, that somewhere he could be given a chance to start a whole new life. He wouldn’t quite let himself hope, but he was thawing to it.

The train pulled into Salem.

After Salem, the tubeline swung south and then east again to Marblehead, and then on south to Lynn and Boston. But Beverly was about four miles north of Salem, on the far side of the estuary. Rowan supposed that there was some kind of public transportation between the two towns, but he didn’t know what, and couldn’t have afforded to utilize it anyway; the commuter-ticket was dead. He was going to have to walk. Maybe it was better that way.

Up Essex Street, fumbling and tapping in the dusty sunlight.

Everything went well for perhaps a mile. Then Rowan discovered, to his dismay, that practically the entire eastern half of town had been razed since the last time he’d been through, and was being made over into a vast industrial complex of some sort. On this side of Essex Street, there were still houses and trees, but on the far side, across a flat expanse of asphalt, he was confronted with a chaotic expanse of factories, trainyards, excavations, construction sites and storage areas. Some of the factories were already in operation, others were still going up. The whole region was crisscrossed with deep gullies and pits, and some areas seemed to have been terraced and stairstepped in a manner reminiscent of strip-mining. Construction was taking place on many different levels among the terraces, and a gray haze of smoke hung over everything. East, toward the ocean, a herd of snaky black machines were busily eating the last of a row of old wooden houses.

He had hoped to keep to the side streets, but it seemed that there weren’t any side streets here anymore. Unless he circled back to the west, he’d have to keep on following the major thoroughfare north, and that was more risky than he liked.

Rowan decided that he’d have to take the chance of following Essex Street. He had just started to tap his way forward again when wood-pulp geysered from a tree alongside him, leaving a ragged new hole in the bark.

Sound slapped his ears a heartbeat later, but by then he was already moving. By the time he consciously realized that someone was shooting at him, he had covered half the distance to the nearest cluster of factory buildings, running faster than he had ever run in his life, dodging and swerving like a madman. Suddenly there was a railing in front of him, with a drop of unknown depth beyond it. He vaulted up and over it without breaking stride. A bullet made the railing ring like a gong a second after he had cleared it.

He dropped about ten feet down onto hard pavement, took ukemi as well as he could, and was up and dodging instantly in spite of a painfully wrenched ankle. As he ran, he was acutely aware of how hot it was under the glaring sun. The only thought in his head was an incongruous wish for a glass of water. Another shot splintered concrete at his heels, and then he was slamming through a door and into a building. It was some kind of huge assembly plant with a cavernous ceiling, full of cold echoes and bitter blue lights. He bullied his way through it, followed by a spreading wave of alarm as he collided with people and knocked work-benches over, staggering, falling down and scrambling up again. As he dodged out a door on the far side of the plant, he heard another gunshot behind him. Then he was tearing through a narrow alleyway between factories. There were rainbow puddles of oil and spilled chemicals on the ground here, and he splashed through them deliberately, hoping that the bitter reek of them would throw his pursuers off if they were tracking him by scent. Someone shouted excitedly at his heels. He ducked into another factory building.

It became phantasmagoria, a nightmare of pursuit—Rowan running endlessly through vast rooms full of shapes and stinks and lights and alien noises, while invisible things snatched at him and tried to pull him down. Everything was fragmentary and disjointed now for Rowan, as though he existed only in discontinuous slices of time. In one such slice, he was hitching a ride on a flat-car that was rumbling through a trainyard between varicolored mountains of chemical waste, listening to sirens and shouts behind him and wondering when he should jump off and run. In another, he was dodging through a multi-leveled forest of oddly jointed pipes, like a child swarming through a jungle gym. Another, and he was climbing slowly and tenaciously up a cyclone fence. Another, and he was running through a vacant lot, a construction site that had been temporarily abandoned and which had been grown over everywhere by man-high expanses of scrub grass and wild wheat.

Rowan tripped over a discarded tool, fell flat on his face, stayed down. That saved him. A scythe of heat swept across the field at hip level, and suddenly all the grass was burning. This time, they were using lasers. He rolled frantically through the blazing grass in an instinctive attempt to put out the little fires that were starting on his clothes and in his hair, and accidentally tumbled down into a steep, clay-sided gulley. There was a sluggish, foot-deep trickle of muddy water at the bottom of the gulley, and he crawled through it on his belly while everything burned above him, choking, blinded by smoke and baked by heat that blistered his back, an inchworm on a griddle in Hell.

Then he was kneeling in a tree-shaded backyard while someone washed his face with a wet, scented towel. He retched helplessly, and firm hands held his head. He had something very important to say, some vitally important thing that he had almost remembered, but when he tried to speak all he could coax from his cracked lips and swollen tongue was an ugly jangling croak. “Shut up, goddamn you,” said an anxious voice. A woman’s voice. He rested in her arms, and stared up at her in awe. She was radiantly beautiful, as cool and clear as the water she used to sponge him, and she smiled like the sun as she wiped the blood and slime and singed hair from his face. He woke up enough then to realize that he had been slipping in and out of delirium, that he really couldn’t see her at all. She was invisible. That seemed very sad and unreasonable. He discussed it with her while she bathed his face, carrying out a long, intricate conversation with her, not even trying to use his voice this time, it was such a poor instrument for communication, and his didn’t work anyway. Then she was forcing something into his mouth—a capsule—and holding water to his lips.

Drinking was so painful that it shocked him almost fully awake, and then the antifever capsule hit his system, and that helped too. He realized that she was trying to wrestle him into something. A caftan. “What are you doing?” he asked, quite clearly and reasonably. “Keep quiet!” she snarled. “Raise your arms a little.” Dutifully, he helped her get the caftan onto him. The world faded for a moment, and when it came back she was wrapping a scarf around his head. “Cover the singed hair, anyway,” she said. “I’d shave your head if I had time. Goddamn you, don’t go to sleep! You’ve got to get out of here, right now.”

With an effort, Rowan pulled himself to clarity. He sat up and took his head in his hands. “Come on, come on,” the woman was saying nervously, “get up.” Her hands took him under the arms and tugged, he scrambled and flailed, pushing with legs that didn’t want to work. There was a moment of extraordinary nausea and pain, and then he was on his feet, trembling, half-supported by the woman. “Just stay on your feet now,” she said. “You’ll be OK. That’s right.” She took her hands away, and somehow he managed to stay upright, swaying, feeling as if his bones had melted. By this time, Rowan had figured out what was happening, and he clumsily started to thank the woman for helping him, but she cut him off irritably. “Just get out of here, you goddamned fool. I can’t do anything more for you. Done more than I should already, I got a family to think of. You just go on and get out of here now. Road’s out that way”—not knowing that he couldn’t see which way she was pointing—“don’t guess you’d want to go back out over the fence the way you came in, too suspicious.” She hesitated, as though afraid to wish him well. “Go on, now,” she said at last, and he could almost imagine her making shooing motions at him. Her voice was unsteady. “Please go. I have to think of my family. I can’t let them catch you here.” He sensed then that she had gone abruptly away. A moment later the back door of the house opened and closed. He wondered if she was still watching him through the glass half of the door. Somehow he hoped that she was.

Rowan made his way around to the front of the house, and discovered that he was on Bridge Street, a mile or more from the factory area, although he had no clear recollection of how he had gotten there. That made it a fairly straightforward problem. He had to follow Bridge Street north another mile, cross the bridge over the estuary, and he would be there. He could hardly feel his body anymore, but that was probably a blessing. It allowed him to sit somewhere far removed from pain and drive his body like a car, coax it along like a beaten-up old heap being driven to a second-hand dealer’s lot, the owner swearing bitterly all the way and hoping he can get the thing there before it falls apart. He set out for Beverly.

The world began to turn to mush again as he walked. After a few blocks he started to hallucinate, seeing brief vivid flashes of things that couldn’t be there, having long talks with people who didn’t exist. He would come back to himself as from a great distance, and find that he was talking to himself in a very loud voice and swinging his arms wildly, or else making hoarse grunting noises, huhn, huhn, like an exhausted bear harried closely by hounds. He no longer cared if he attracted attention or even if he bumped into people. He was no longer worried about pursuit; in fact, he had forgotten that anybody was after him. He only knew that he had to get to Beverly. Reaching that goal had become an end in itself; he didn’t remember what he was supposed to do when he got there, and he didn’t care. All his will was taken up by the task of keeping his body clumping leadenly along, while the world flowed by like porridge.

He was on a bridge, suspended between sea and sky.

Out there to the east was Great Misery Island, then Bakers Island, and then nothing but water, an endless fan of icy water spreading on and out forever, turning into Ocean. There was freedom. To sail out and away forever toward the rising sun, with no restrictions, no boundaries, just infinite space and Rowan, skimming the glassy white tops of the waves.

There was a gusty wet wind coming in from the sea. For what seemed like a very long time it hit Rowan across the face, back and forth, back and forth, as methodical and unpitying as a manager bent on reviving a heavyweight with a wet towel in the tenth round of a losing fight, until Rowan’s head finally began to clear. He was slumped against the railing of the bridge, cold metal biting into his armpits. He had hooked his arms over the top rail, and that had kept him from actually falling down, but he had no idea how long he had been hanging there in a daze, starring out into Massachusetts Bay. Sailboats and trawlers were moving back and forth in the deep channel, and the sight of them jarringly reminded him why he had to get to Beverly.

Then he heard sirens in the sky behind him.

Rowan started walking again. He had no reserves left—neither panic nor the imminence of death could prod him into running. He was physically unable to run, no matter what the provocation. So he walked away from his pursuers, trudging slowly across the rest of the bridge and up the hill on the other side. He was in Beverly now, perhaps a quarter-mile from his goal. The sirens were a thin, irritating thread of sound, just on the edge of hearing. They didn’t seem to be coming any closer. Perhaps the police were holding a search pattern over Salem:

If only they would stay away for ten more minutes.

Rowan forced himself to walk faster. But the extra effort involved began to jar him away from reality again. He fell into a walking dream of Bolivia, the rugged, sun-bronzed men welcoming him into the ranks of the insurrectionists, the trip to their remote mountain fortresses, the women waiting to welcome him, the important work waiting to be done. A new life. To be free of fear—for the first time in how long? Had he ever been free of fear? Had there ever been a day when someone wasn’t spying on him, prying and prodding and pushing him, wrapping him in gossamer that was as strong as iron, controlling him like a puppet? A spark of anger touched him then, and he blazed up like old dead wood. Let the insurrectionists give him a gun—that was all he’d ask for, that was all he wanted.

His anger saved him. He’d been staggering down Rantoulle Street in a somnambulistic daze, and had nearly missed his turn. But rage shook him momentarily awake. He turned onto Edwards Street, past the school. He could hear children playing in the schoolyard, their voices rising and falling through the mellow afternoon air like the shrill calling of birds, but he could not see them as he passed—to his eyes, only leaves and paper-scraps moved across the asphalt with the wind, and he also moved on with it, alone.

The sirens were getting louder. They were coming after him.

But then he turned a final corner, and the sea spread out below him, glinting and silver and vast, opening the world to the horizon. This was Quincy Park. As he stood on the road above, his eyes followed the long slope down to the seawall, then beyond the beach to the ocean, and to the slim white sailboat that waited there, like a sign, like a dove on the water, like the fulfillment of all the dreams he’d ever known.

Rowan started down the slope toward the ocean, his feet slipping on the grass, breaking at last into a ponderous trot. He was almost there. Hope opened like a wound inside him, molten and amazing.

Something slammed into his ribcage like a white-hot sword, sending him staggering back, knocking the breath and the hope out of him. For a second, the incredible shock of the impact dissolved all illusions, and he remembered, and knew that again he had failed to escape. Someday! he shouted in a great silent puff of pain and rage and sudden terrible knowledge. Someday!

Then another blow took him over the heart and drove him into darkness.

The fat man worked the action of the tranquilizer rifle and ejected a gleaming metal dart. “My God!” he breathed, reverentially.

Up the slope, the technicians were already reprogramming the mobile computers for the next runthrough, using the stereo plotting tanks to set up a paradigm describing all the possible sequences and combinations of sequences that might apply, an exercise in four-dimensional topography and systems-flow. Of course, the computers did all the real work: controlling the sequencing, selecting among tables of alternatives as the real-world situation altered and reprogramming themselves on the fly, coordinating a thousand physical details such as the locking of doors and the blocking of certain corridors that kept the human subject restricted to a manageable spatial network of routes and choices, directing the human “beaters” who helped keep the subject “in the chute,” triggering previously implanted fantasy fugue sequences such as the car crash and timing them so that they melded smoothly with real-world action. And much else besides. Nevertheless, the human technicians considered themselves to be overworked, and all made a point of looking harried and rather ostentatiously tired.

A small, foxy-faced man appeared at the fat man’s elbow. “Very nice,” he said briskly, rubbing his hands. “As good a show as I promised you, Senator, I think you’ll agree with that. And of course,” he added piously, “so valuable therapeutically.” He smiled. “Always so many possibilities! Will he get to Hamilton, or end up in Danvers? Will he kill the old man or not? Will he find the car or let me steer him to the tube? An enormous but finite number of choices, aesthetically it’s quite elegant. I’m always reminded of the medieval theologies. Free will operating within a framework of predetermination. Of course,” he said, smiling ingratiatingly at the fat man, “you realize Who that makes us.”

The fat man wasn’t listening. His face was beaded with sweat. “That was fine,” he said. “My God, Doctor, that was very fine.” His eyes remained glassy for a moment longer, and then animation came back into his features. He broke the rifle and started to hand it to the foxy-faced man, then hesitated, and with an eager shy deference that was obviously foreign to so important a man, asked, “How long does it take to get him ready again? I mean, it’s hours yet until dark, and I was wondering if it would be possible—”

The doctor smiled indulgently. “Always time for one more,” he said.

Back | Next