Part 11 (1/2)

I was at my desk, trying to cope with the usual spate of papers, when I received a call to see Zeb's boss at my earliest convenience. Since he already had his orders, I left word with Huxley's orderly and hurried over.

He cut short the formalities. 'Major, I have a letter for you which Communications sent over for a.n.a.lysis to determine whether it should be rephrased or simply destroyed. However, on the urgent recommendation of one of my division heads I am taking the responsibility of letting you read it without paraphrasing. You will have to read it here.'

I said, 'Yes, sir,' feeling quite puzzled.

He handed it to me. It was fairly long and I suppose it could have held half a dozen coded messages, even idea codes that could come through paraphrasing. I don't remember much of it-just the impact it had on me. It was from Judith.

'My dear John . . . I shall always think of you fondly and I shall never forget what you have done for me.. . never meant for each other . . . Mr. Mendoza has been most considerate. I know you will forgive me.. . he needs me; it must have been fate that brought us together . . . if you ever visit Mexico City, you must think of our home as yours . . . I will always think of you as my strong and wise older brother and I will always be a sister-' There was more, lots more, all of the same sort-I think the process is known as 'breaking it gently'.

Novak reached out and took the letter from me. 'I didn't intend for you to have time to memorize it,' he said dryly, then dropped it at once into his desk incinerator. He glanced back at me. 'Maybe you had better sit down, Major. Do you smoke?'

I did not sit down, but I was spinning so fast that I accepted the cigarette and let him light it for me. Then I choked on tobacco smoke and the sheer physical discomfort helped to bring me back to reality. I thanked him and got out-went straight to my room, called my office and left word where I could be found if the General really wanted me. But I told my secretary that I was suddenly quite ill and not to disturb me if it could possibly be helped.

I may have been there about an hour-I wouldn't know-lying face down and doing nothing, not even thinking. There came a gentle tap at the door, then it was pushed open; it was Zeb. 'How do you feel?' he said.

'Numb,' I answered. It did not occur to me to wonder how he knew and at the time I had forgotten the 'division head' who had prevailed upon Novak to let me see it in the clear.

He came on in, sprawled in a chair, and looked at me. I rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed. 'Don't let it throw you, Johnnie,' he said quietly. '”Men have died and worms have eaten them-but not for love.”'

'You don't know!'

'No, I don't,' he agreed. 'Each man is his own prisoner, in solitary confinement for life. Nevertheless on this particular point the statistics are fairly reliable. Try something for me. Visualize Judith in your mind. See her features. Listen to her voice.'


'Do it.'

I tried, I really tried-and, do you know, I couldn't. I had never had a picture of her; her face now eluded me.

Zeb was watching me. 'You'll get well,' he said firmly. 'Now look here, Johnnie. . . I could have told you. Judith is a very female sort of woman, all gonads and no brain. And she's quite attractive. Turned loose, she was bound to find a man, as sure as nascent oxygen will recombine. But there is no use in talking to a man in love.'

He stood up. 'Johnnie, I've got to go. I hate like the mischief to walk out and leave you in the shape you are in, but I've already checked out and Grandfather Novak is ready to leave. He'll eat me out as it is, for holding him up this long. But one more word of advice before I go -, I waited. 'I suggest,' he continued, 'that you see a lot of Maggie while I'm away. She's good medicine.'

He started to leave; I said sharply, 'Zeb-what happened to you and Maggie? Something like this?'

He looked back at me sharply. 'Huh? No. Not at all the same thing. It wasn't. . . well, it wasn't similar.'

'I don't understand you-I guess I just don't understand people. You're urging me to see a lot of Maggie-and I thought she was your girl. Uh, wouldn't you be jealous?'

He stared at me, laughed, and clapped me on the shoulder. 'She's a free citizen, Johnnie, believe me. If you ever did anything to hurt Maggie, I'd tear off your head and beat you to death with it. Not that you ever would. But jealous of her? No. It doesn't enter the picture. I think she's the greatest gal that ever trod shoe leather-but I would rather marry a mountain lioness.'

He left on that, leaving me again with my mouth open. But I took his advice, or Maggie took it for me. Maggie knew all about it-Judith, I mean-and I a.s.sumed that Zeb had told her. He hadn't; it seemed that Judith had written to her first. In any case I didn't have to look her up; she looked me up right after dinner that night. I talked with her a while and felt much better, so much so that I went back to my office and made up for time lost that afternoon.

Maggie and I made a habit thereafter of taking a walk together after dinner. We went on no more spelling bees; not only was there no time for such during those last days but also neither one of us felt like trying to work up another foursome with Zeb away. Sometimes I could spare only twenty minutes or even less before I would have to be back at my desk-but it was the high point of the day; I looked forward to it.

Even without leaving the floodlighted main cavern, without leaving the marked paths, there were plenty of wonderfully beautiful walks to take. If I could afford to be away as much as an hour, there was one place in particular we liked to go-north in the big room, a good half mile from the buildings. The path meandered among frozen limestone mushrooms, great columns, domes, and fantastic shapes that have no names and looked equally like souls in torment or great exotic flowers, depending on the mood one was in. At a spot nearly a hundred feet higher than the main floor we had found a place only a few feet off the authorized path where nature had contrived a natural stone bench. We could sit there and stare down at the toy village, talk, and Maggie would smoke. I had taken to lighting her cigarettes for her, as I had seen Zeb do. It was a little attention she liked and I had learned to avoid getting smoke caught in my throat.

About six weeks after Zeb had left and only days before M-Hour we were doing this and were talking about what it would be like after the revolution and what we would do with ourselves. I said that I supposed I would stay in the regular army, a.s.suming that there was such and that I was eligible for it. 'What will you do, Maggie?'

She exhaled smoke slowly. 'I haven't thought that far, John. I haven't any profession-that is to say, we are trying our best to make the one I did have obsolete.' She smiled wryly. 'I'm not educated in anything useful. I can cook and I can sew and I can keep house; I suppose I should try to find a job as a housekeeper-competent servants are always scarce, they say.'

The idea of the courageous and resourceful Sister Magdalene, so quick with a vibroblade when the need arose, tramping from one employment bureau to another in search of menial work to keep her body fed was an idea at once distasteful to me-'General Housework & Cooking, live in, Thursday evenings & alternate Sundays off; references required.' Maggie? Maggie who had saved my own probably worthless life at least twice and never hesitated nor counted the cost. Not Maggie!

I blurted out, 'Look, you don't have to do that.'

'It's what I know.'

'Yes, but-well, why don't you cook and keep house for me? I'll be drawing enough to support both of us, even if I have to go back to my permanent rank. Maybe it isn't much but-shucks! you're welcome to it.'

She looked up. 'Why, John, how very generous!' She crushed out the cigarette and threw it aside. 'I do appreciate it-but it wouldn't work. I imagine there will be just as many gossips after we have won as before. Your colonel would not like it.'

I blushed red and almost shouted, 'That wasn't what I meant at all!'

'What? Then what did you mean?'

I had not really known until the words came out. Now I knew but not how to express it. 'I meant-Look, Maggie, you seem to like me well enough . . . and we get along well together. That is, why don't we-' I halted, hung up.

She stood up and faced me. 'John, are you proposing marriage-to me?'

I said gruffly, 'Uh, that was the general idea.' It bothered me to have her standing in front of me, so I stood up, too.

She looked at me gravely, searching my face, then said humbly, 'I'm honored . . - and grateful . . . and I am deeply touched. But-oh, no, John!' The tears started out of her eyes and she started to bawl. She stopped as quickly, wiping her face with her sleeve, and said brokenly, 'Now you've made me cry. I haven't cried in years.'

I started to put my arms around her; she pushed me back. 'No, John! Listen to me first. I'll accept that job as your housekeeper, but I won't marry you.'

'Why not?'

'”Why not?” Oh, my dear, my very dear-Because I am an old, tired woman, that's why.'

'Old? You can't be more than a year or two older than I am-three, at the outside. It doesn't matter.'

'I'm a thousand years older than you are. Think who I am where I've been-what I've known. First I was ”bride”, if you care to call it that, to the Prophet.'

'Not your fault!'

'Perhaps. Then I was mistress to your friend Zebadiah. You knew that?'

'Well . . . I was pretty sure of it.'

'That isn't all. There were other men. Some because it was needful and a woman has few bribes to offer. Some from loneliness, or even boredom. After the Prophet has tired of her, a woman doesn't seem very valuable, even to herself.'

'I don't care. I don't care! It doesn't matter!'