“Effie! What the devil are you up to?”
Her husband’s voice, chopping through her mood of terrified rapture, made her heart jump like a startled cat, yet by some miracle of feminine self-control her body did not show a tremor.
Dear God, she thought, _he mustn’t see it. It’s so beautiful, and he always kills beauty._
“I’m just looking at the Moon,” she said listlessly. “It’s green.”
Mustn’t, mustn’t see it. And now, with luck, he wouldn’t. For the face, as if it also heard and sensed the menace in the voice, was moving back from the window’s glow into the outside dark, but slowly, reluctantly, and still faunlike, pleading, cajoling, tempting, and incredibly beautiful.
“Close the shutters at once, you little fool, and come away from the window!”
“Green as a beer bottle,” she went on dreamily, “green as emeralds, green as leaves with sunshine striking through them and green grass to lie on.” She couldn’t help saying those last words. They were her token to the face, even though it couldn’t hear.
She knew what that last tone meant. Wearily she swung shut the ponderous lead inner shutters and drove home the heavy bolts. That hurt her fingers; it always did, but he mustn’t know that.
“You know that those shutters are not to be touched! Not for five more years at least!”
“I only wanted to look at the Moon,” she said, turning around, and then it was all gone--the face, the night, the Moon, the magic--and she was back in the grubby, stale little hole, facing an angry, stale little man. It was then that the eternal thud of the air-conditioning fans and the crackle of the electrostatic precipitators that sieved out the dust reached her consciousness again like the bite of a dentist’s drill.
“Only wanted to look at the Moon!” he mimicked her in falsetto. “Only wanted to die like a little fool and make me that much more ashamed of you!” Then his voice went gruff and professional. “Here, count yourself.”
She silently took the Geiger counter he held at arm’s length, waited until it settled down to a steady ticking slower than a clock--due only to cosmic rays and indicating nothing dangerous--and then began to comb her body with the instrument. First her head and shoulders, then out along her arms and back along their under side. There was something oddly voluptuous about her movements, although her features were gray and sagging.
The ticking did not change its tempo until she came to her waist. Then it suddenly spurted, clicking faster and faster. Her husband gave an excited grunt, took a quick step forward, froze. She goggled for a moment in fear, then grinned foolishly, dug in the pocket of her grimy apron and guiltily pulled out a wristwatch.
He grabbed it as it dangled from her fingers, saw that it had a radium dial, cursed, heaved it up as if to smash it on the floor, but instead put it carefully on the table.
“You imbecile, you incredible imbecile,” he softly chanted to himself through clenched teeth, with eyes half closed.
She shrugged faintly, put the Geiger counter on the table, and stood there slumped.
He waited until the chanting had soothed his anger, before speaking again. He said quietly, “I do suppose you still realize the sort of world you’re living in?”
She nodded slowly, staring at nothingness. Oh, she realized, all right, realized only too well. It was the world that hadn’t realized. The world that had gone on stockpiling hydrogen bombs. The world that had put those bombs in cobalt shells, although it had promised it wouldn’t, because the cobalt made them much more terrible and cost no more. The world that had started throwing those bombs, always telling itself that it hadn’t thrown enough of them yet to make the air really dangerous with the deadly radioactive dust that came from the cobalt. Thrown them and kept on throwing until the danger point, where air and ground would become fatal to all human life, was approached.
Then, for about a month, the two great enemy groups had hesitated. And then each, unknown to the other, had decided it could risk one last gigantic and decisive attack without exceeding the danger point. It had been planned to strip off the cobalt cases, but someone forgot and then there wasn’t time. Besides, the military scientists of each group were confident that the lands of the other had got the most dust. The two attacks came within an hour of each other.
After that, the Fury. The Fury of doomed men who think only of taking with them as many as possible of the enemy, and in this case--they hoped--all. The Fury of suicides who know they have botched up life for good. The Fury of cocksure men who realize they have been outsmarted by fate, the enemy, and themselves, and know that they will never be able to improvise a defense when arraigned before the high court of history--and whose unadmitted hope is that there will be no high court of history left to arraign them. More cobalt bombs were dropped during the Fury than in all the preceding years of the war.
After the Fury, the Terror. Men and women with death sifting into their bones through their nostrils and skin, fighting for bare survival under a dust-hazed sky that played fantastic tricks with the light of Sun and Moon, like the dust from Krakatoa that drifted around the world for years. Cities, countryside, and air were alike poisoned, alive with deadly radiation.
The only realistic chance for continued existence was to retire, for the five or ten years the radiation would remain deadly, to some well-sealed and radiation-shielded place that must also be copiously supplied with food, water, power, and a means of air-conditioning.
Such places were prepared by the far-seeing, seized by the stronger, defended by them in turn against the desperate hordes of the dying ... until there were no more of those.
After that, only the waiting, the enduring. A mole’s existence, without beauty or tenderness, but with fear and guilt as constant companions. Never to see the Sun, to walk among the trees--or even know if there were still trees.
Oh, yes, she realized what the world was like.
“You understand, too, I suppose, that we were allowed to reclaim this ground-level apartment only because the Committee believed us to be responsible people, and because I’ve been making a damn good showing lately?”
“I thought you were eager for privacy. You want to go back to the basement tenements?”
_God, no! Anything rather than that fetid huddling, that shameless communal sprawl. And yet, was this so much better? The nearness to the surface was meaningless; it only tantalized. And the privacy magnified Hank._
She shook her head dutifully and said, “No, Hank.”
“Then why aren’t you careful? I’ve told you a million times, Effie, that glass is no protection against the dust that’s outside that window. The lead shutter must never be touched! If you make one single slip like that and it gets around, the Committee will send us back to the lower levels without blinking an eye. And they’ll think twice before trusting me with any important jobs.”
“I’m sorry, Hank.”
“Sorry? What’s the good of being sorry? The only thing that counts is never to make a slip! Why the devil do you do such things, Effie? What drives you to it?”
She swallowed. “It’s just that it’s so dreadful being cooped up like this,” she said hesitatingly, “shut away from the sky and the Sun. I’m just hungry for a little beauty.”
“And do you suppose I’m not?” he demanded. “Don’t you suppose I want to get outside, too, and be carefree and have a good time? But I’m not so damn selfish about it. I want my children to enjoy the Sun, and my children’s children. Don’t you see that that’s the all-important thing and that we have to behave like mature adults and make sacrifices for it?”
He surveyed her slumped figure, her lined and listless face. “You’re a fine one to talk about hunger for beauty,” he told her. Then his voice grew softer, more deliberate. “You haven’t forgotten, have you, Effie, that until last month the Committee was so concerned about your sterility? That they were about to enter my name on the list of those waiting to be allotted a free woman? Very high on the list, too!”
She could nod even at that one, but not while looking at him. She turned away. She knew very well that the Committee was justified in worrying about the birth rate. When the community finally moved back to the surface again, each additional healthy young person would be an asset, not only in the struggle for bare survival, but in the resumed war against Communism which some of the Committee members still counted on.
It was natural that they should view a sterile woman with disfavor, and not only because of the waste of her husband’s germ-plasm, but because sterility might indicate that she had suffered more than the average from radiation. In that case, if she did bear children later on, they would be more apt to carry a defective heredity, producing an undue number of monsters and freaks in future generations, and so contaminating the race.
Of course she understood it. She could hardly remember the time when she didn’t. Years ago? Centuries? There wasn’t much difference in a place where time was endless.
His lecture finished, her husband smiled and grew almost cheerful.
“Now that you’re going to have a child, that’s all in the background again. Do you know, Effie, that when I first came in, I had some very good news for you? I’m to become a member of the Junior Committee and the announcement will be made at the banquet tonight.” He cut short her mumbled congratulations. “So brighten yourself up and put on your best dress. I want the other Juniors to see what a handsome wife the new member has got.” He paused. “Well, get a move on!”
She spoke with difficulty, still not looking at him. “I’m terribly sorry, Hank, but you’ll have to go alone. I’m not well.”
He straightened up with an indignant jerk. “There you go again! First that infantile, inexcusable business of the shutters, and now this! No feeling for my reputation at all. Don’t be ridiculous, Effie. You’re coming!”
“Terribly sorry,” she repeated blindly, “but I really can’t. I’d just be sick. I wouldn’t make you proud of me at all.”
“Of course you won’t,” he retorted sharply. “As it is, I have to spend half my energy running around making excuses for you--why you’re so odd, why you always seem to be ailing, why you’re always stupid and snobbish and say the wrong thing. But tonight’s really important, Effie. It will cause a lot of bad comment if the new member’s wife isn’t present. You know how just a hint of sickness starts the old radiation-disease rumor going. You’ve got to come, Effie.”
She shook her head helplessly.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, come on!” he shouted, advancing on her. “This is just a silly mood. As soon as you get going, you’ll snap out of it. There’s nothing really wrong with you at all.”
He put his hand on her shoulder to turn her around, and at his touch her face suddenly grew so desperate and gray that for a moment he was alarmed in spite of himself.
“Really?” he asked, almost with a note of concern.
She nodded miserably.
“Hmm!” He stepped back and strode about irresolutely. “Well, of course, if that’s the way it is...” He checked himself and a sad smile crossed his face. “So you don’t care enough about your old husband’s success to make one supreme effort in spite of feeling bad?”
Again the helpless headshake. “I just can’t go out tonight, under any circumstances.” And her gaze stole toward the lead shutters.
He was about to say something when he caught the direction of her gaze. His eyebrows jumped. For seconds he stared at her incredulously, as if some completely new and almost unbelievable possibility had popped into his mind. The look of incredulity slowly faded, to be replaced by a harder, more calculating expression. But when he spoke again, his voice was shockingly bright and kind.
“Well, it can’t be helped naturally, and I certainly wouldn’t want you to go if you weren’t able to enjoy it. So you hop right into bed and get a good rest. I’ll run over to the men’s dorm to freshen up. No, really, I don’t want you to have to make any effort at all. Incidentally, Jim Barnes isn’t going to be able to come to the banquet either--touch of the old ‘flu, he tells me, of all things.”
He watched her closely as he mentioned the other man’s name, but she didn’t react noticeably. In fact, she hardly seemed to be hearing his chatter.
“I got a bit sharp with you, I’m afraid, Effie,” he continued contritely. “I’m sorry about that. I was excited about my new job and I guess that was why things upset me. Made me feel let down when I found you weren’t feeling as good as I was. Selfish of me. Now you get into bed right away and get well. Don’t worry about me a bit. I know you’d come if you possibly could. And I know you’ll be thinking about me. Well, I must be off now.”
He started toward her, as if to embrace her, then seemed to think better of it. He turned back at the doorway and said, emphasizing the words, “You’ll be completely alone for the next four hours.” He waited for her nod, then bounced out.
She stood still until his footsteps died away. Then she straightened up, walked over to where he’d put down the wristwatch, picked it up and smashed it hard on the floor. The crystal shattered, the case flew apart, and something went zing!
She stood there breathing heavily. Slowly her sagged features lifted, formed themselves into the beginning of a smile. She stole another look at the shutters. The smile became more definite. She felt her hair, wet her fingers and ran them along her hairline and back over her ears. After wiping her hands on her apron, she took it off. She straightened her dress, lifted her head with a little flourish, and stepped smartly toward the window.
Then her face went miserable again and her steps slowed.
No, it couldn’t be, and it won’t be, she told herself. It had been just an illusion, a silly romantic dream that she had somehow projected out of her beauty-starved mind and given a moment’s false reality. There couldn’t be anything alive outside. There hadn’t been for two whole years.
And if there conceivably were, it would be something altogether horrible. She remembered some of the pariahs--hairless, witless creatures, with radiation welts crawling over their bodies like worms, who had come begging for succor during the last months of the Terror--and been shot down. How they must have hated the people in refuges!
But even as she was thinking these things, her fingers were caressing the bolts, gingerly drawing them, and she was opening the shutters gently, apprehensively.
No, there couldn’t be anything outside, she assured herself wryly, peering out into the green night. Even her fears had been groundless.
But the face came floating up toward the window. She started back in terror, then checked herself.
For the face wasn’t horrible at all, only very thin, with full lips and large eyes and a thin proud nose like the jutting beak of a bird. And no radiation welts or scars marred the skin, olive in the tempered moonlight. It looked, in fact, just as it had when she had seen it the first time.
For a long moment the face stared deep, deep into her brain. Then the full lips smiled and a half-clenched, thin-fingered hand materialized itself from the green darkness and rapped twice on the grimy pane.
Her heart pounding, she furiously worked the little crank that opened the window. It came unstuck from the frame with a tiny explosion of dust and a zing like that of the watch, only louder. A moment later it swung open wide and a puff of incredibly fresh air caressed her face and the inside of her nostrils, stinging her eyes with unanticipated tears.
The man outside balanced on the sill, crouching like a faun, head high, one elbow on knee. He was dressed in scarred, snug trousers and an old sweater.
“Is it tears I get for a welcome?” he mocked her gently in a musical voice. “Or are those only to greet God’s own breath, the air?”
He swung down inside and now she could see he was tall. Turning, he snapped his fingers and called, “Come, puss.”
A black cat with a twisted stump of a tail and feet like small boxing gloves and ears almost as big as rabbits’ hopped clumsily in view. He lifted it down, gave it a pat. Then, nodding familiarly to Effie, he unstrapped a little pack from his back and laid it on the table.
She couldn’t move. She even found it hard to breathe.
“The window,” she finally managed to get out.
He looked at her inquiringly, caught the direction of her stabbing finger. Moving without haste, he went over and closed it carelessly.
“The shutters, too,” she told him, but he ignored that, looking around.
“It’s a snug enough place you and your man have,” he commented. “Or is it that this is a free-love town or a harem spot, or just a military post?” He checked her before she could answer. “But let’s not be talking about such things now. Soon enough I’ll be scared to death for both of us. Best enjoy the kick of meeting, which is always good for twenty minutes at the least.” He smiled at her rather shyly. “Have you food? Good, then bring it.”
She set cold meat and some precious canned bread before him and had water heating for coffee. Before he fell to, he shredded a chunk of meat and put it on the floor for the cat, which left off its sniffing inspection of the walls and ran up eagerly mewing. Then the man began to eat, chewing each mouthful slowly and appreciatively.
From across the table Effie watched him, drinking in his every deft movement, his every cryptic quirk of expression. She attended to making the coffee, but that took only a moment. Finally she could contain herself no longer.
“What’s it like up there?” she asked breathlessly. “Outside, I mean.”
He looked at her oddly for quite a space. Finally, he said flatly, “Oh, it’s a wonderland for sure, more amazing than you tombed folk could ever imagine. A veritable fairyland.” And he quickly went on eating.
“No, but really,” she pressed.
Noting her eagerness, he smiled and his eyes filled with playful tenderness. “I mean it, on my oath,” he assured her. “You think the bombs and the dust made only death and ugliness. That was true at first. But then, just as the doctors foretold, they changed the life in the seeds and loins that were brave enough to stay. Wonders bloomed and walked.” He broke off suddenly and asked, “Do any of you ever venture outside?”
“A few of the men are allowed to,” she told him, “for short trips in special protective suits, to hunt for canned food and fuels and batteries and things like that.”
“Aye, and those blind-souled slugs would never see anything but what they’re looking for,” he said, nodding bitterly. “They’d never see the garden where a dozen buds blossom where one did before, and the flowers have petals a yard across, with stingless bees big as sparrows gently supping their nectar. Housecats grown spotted and huge as leopards (not little runts like Joe Louis here) stalk through those gardens. But they’re gentle beasts, no more harmful than the rainbow-scaled snakes that glide around their paws, for the dust burned all the murder out of them, as it burned itself out.
“I’ve even made up a little poem about that. It starts, ‘Fire can hurt me, or water, or the weight of Earth. But the dust is my friend.’ Oh, yes, and then the robins like cockatoos and squirrels like a princess’s ermine! All under a treasure chest of Sun and Moon and stars that the dust’s magic powder changes from ruby to emerald and sapphire and amethyst and back again. Oh, and then the new children--”
“You’re telling the truth?” she interrupted him, her eyes brimming with tears. “You’re not making it up?”