It seemed to be the same tree that kept getting in my way. I tried to go around it but it moved with me and I ran right into it. I found myself sprawled on my back and my nose was bleeding where I had hit it against the tree. Then I got up and ran again.
I had to keep running. I didn’t know why; I just had to. There was a puddle of water and I splashed through it and then slipped and fell into a thorny bush. When I got up there were scratches on my hands and face and chest.
As yet I felt no pain. That wouldn’t come for a while, after I had done a lot more running. But at the moment I couldn’t feel a thing.
In my conscious mind there was only a sort of grayness. I didn’t know where I was, or who I was, or why I was running. I didn’t know that if I ran long enough and bumped into enough trees and scratched myself often enough I would eventually feel pain. Or that out of the exertion and the pain would come awareness.
All that must have been there, but buried so deep it didn’t come through. It was only instinct which kept me going.
The same tree was in my way again and this time I didn’t even try to go around it. My breath was knocked out of me. After a few gasps it came back, and then I was off again.
I went up a rise and down into a hollow and tripped over roots. That time I didn’t fall. I went up the other side of the hollow with the wind whistling in my ears. A few drops of rain fell. There were flashes of lightning in the sky.
Wet leaves whipped against my face and there was a crack of thunder so close that it shook me. I ran away from the thunder and up another rise and down into another hollow.
The wind was stronger now. It came in long blasts. Sometimes I ran with it and sometimes against it. When I ran against it I didn’t make much headway, but my legs kept pumping. There was tall grass to slow me down and there were roots to trip me. There was the wind and the thunder and the lightning. And there were always trees.
And then there was a terrible flash and above me a crack that was not of thunder. Something came crashing down. It was the limb of a tree. It crashed against my chest and smashed me flat on my back and pinned me there.
One of my ribs felt broken. It jabbed into me as I fought to raise this weight from my chest, and this was a pain I could feel.
This was something that hurt as nothing had ever hurt me before. This was excruciating. But it was the pain that cut through the grayness of my mind, and because of that I welcomed it.
With the pain would come knowledge. I would know who I was and why I was running. Already there were figures racing across the blankness. There were faces and there were names: Ristal, Kresh, Marko, Copperd, Beth.
I was Marko. I knew that much already. Beth was the golden girl. Somehow I knew that too. But who were the others?
It wasn’t coming fast enough. I couldn’t find the connections. There was only one way to bring it back, to bridge the gaps. I had to start somewhere, with what I knew. I had to start with myself and then bridge the gap to Beth. That was the beginning.
I checked with the mirror for the last time and decided that I would pass muster. As far as I could see, I looked like almost any college student.
There wasn’t anything I could do about my hair. It hadn’t grown at all. It was a mass of short, black ringlets that fit my head like a tight cap. But there was no use worrying about that.
Mrs. Mara came down the hall just as I was locking the door. She looked hurt when she saw me turn the key.
“You don’t have to do that in my house,” she said. “There’s nobody would think of going into your room.”
“Of course not,” I said. “It’s just force of habit, you know.”
I smiled and hoped she would pass it off as lightly as I seemed to. The last thing in the world I wanted was to have her get suspicious and go prowling about my room. I felt easier when she smiled back at me.
“Sure. And where are you off to, now?”
“Swimming,” I said. “That is, if I can get into the college pool.”
“Just act like you own the place and nobody will ask you any questions,” she said, and winked at me.
That was exactly the way I had figured it, but it was good to have reassurance. Theoretically, no one was supposed to use the pool who was not a member of the faculty or student body. Enforcement, however, was lax, and the chances were that nobody would ask to see my card.
Mrs. Mara and I were right. The day was hot, and the men who were supposed to be watching the entrance were sitting in the shade of the stands and quenching their thirst with soft drinks. I walked right in, looking straight ahead.
It was a large pool, used for skating in winter, and there were stands built on three sides. Instead of going down to the locker rooms, I merely slipped out of my shirt and trousers, rolled them into a ball and dropped them beside the pool. A good many others had also worn their swim suits underneath.
Then I looked around for the girl.
She was down near the other end of the pool, talking to some people. As I came toward them she left the group and climbed up on the diving board.
Against her white bathing suit, her small trim figure showed golden. Her hair was almost the same color. She looked like the bathing suit models I had seen in store windows. The golden model came to life as she left the board in a high, arching dive. She hit the water with hardly a splash.
“Nice stuff, Beth,” one of the men said as she swam toward them.
“Was it really, Ken?” the girl asked.
He nodded as he said it was. They began to talk about diving and swimming. The man called Ken did most of the talking. He said he wanted to show her a few things about her swimming stroke.
He jumped off the edge of the pool and swam across and then turned around and swam back. Everybody stopped what they were doing and watched him. When he clambered out he smiled in a very superior way.
“See what I mean? You’ve got to use your legs more.”
“You splash too much,” I said.
It was the only way I could think of at the moment to get into the conversation. But it got me in. Everybody was looking at me as though I were out of my mind. Ken sneered.
“Oh, I do?”
“Don’t take it offensively,” I said. “But you really do. Also your arm motion is not good.”
He was so angry that it was almost funny. Now I was sorry I had spoken, because the girl might be a close friend of his and she might take offense.
“Maybe you would like to show me how it’s done,” Ken said hotly. “I could make it worth your while. Suppose we race two lengths. For ten dollars.”
“That’s not fair, Ken,” the girl said.
I could see that she didn’t like the way he was taking it, so that was all right. But I hesitated. I didn’t have ten dollars. On the other hand, I had been watching these people swim.
It was an easy way to make ten dollars, since I had no other means of getting money. There was the hundred dollars which I had taken from a man on the road the day I came into town, but that money was gone.
“Come on,” I said, and started walking to the end of the pool.
When I got there I bent and dipped one foot into the water. It was colder than the water I had been used to, and not quite as heavy, somehow. I pulled my foot out quickly and everybody laughed, except the girl.
“This isn’t right,” she said. She turned to me. “You don’t know who Ken is, apparently.”
“You are very kind,” I said. I smiled at her and she smiled back. She had blue eyes.
By that time the pool had been cleared. Everybody was out of the water and standing at the edge. Ken said, “Whenever you’re ready.”
“I am ready now,” I said. And immediately one of his friends gave the signal, “Go!”
Ken jumped in first. Then I dived in. Once in the water it did not feel so cold nor so light. I swam down to the other end and turned around and swam back. When I climbed out, Ken was just making his turn at the far end. Everyone was looking at me very strangely. Ken came out rubbing his shoulder.
“Must have pulled a muscle,” he muttered.
“In that case I wouldn’t think of taking your money,” I told him.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you around before,” he said. “You’ve got to have a card to swim here, you know.’
“Well, I don’t have one. So I suppose I had better go.”
“Of all the cheap tricks,” the girl said. “I think I’ll go too. Wait for me.”
I waited for her while she went to get dressed. I put on my trousers over my swimming trunks, put on my shirt and shoes and sat on a bench and waited. When she came out we started for the exit. Ken came hurrying toward us.
“I thought I was taking you home,” he said, his face red with anger.
She didn’t bother to reply and he put his hand on her arm. I told him to let go and he let go. Then he swung around and hit me on the jaw with all his might. I grabbed his arm with one hand and his throat with the other and threw him into the middle of the pool.
Things were going better than I expected. As we walked along, she seemed quite interested in me. I told her my name and she told me that she was Beth Copperd, the daughter of a professor at the university. I pretended that I had not known those things.
When we got to her home, which was on a tree lined street, we paused for a moment. Across the street there was a car with a man sitting in it, pretending to read a newspaper.
I knew all about that man. I knew there was another man who was watching the back of the house. If not for that I would not have had to go through this lengthy affair with Beth Copperd.
“I regret very much this trouble with your friend,” I said.
“You needn’t. He’s had it coming for a long time.” She stared at me thoughtfully. “You know, Marko, I’m a little afraid of you.”
“Of me? But why?”
“Well,” she hesitated, “it’s hard to say. But when a man jumps into a pool and swims so much faster than one of our country’s best swimmers, and then picks up that swimmer and throws him fifty feet without the slightest effort ... well, that man is slightly unusual, to say the least.”
“Oh, the swimming...”
I hadn’t thought that what was quite ordinary for me might seem exactly the opposite to these people. I had blundered. So I tried to shrug it off, as though such things were common among my people. Which they were. But that line only dragged me deeper. This girl was no fool.
“That’s what I meant, Marko. You aren’t being modest. You’re acting as though you’re used to such feats, and take them as a matter of course. And there’s your accent. I can’t quite place it.”
“Some day I’ll tell you all about it,” I said lightly. “When we know each other better.”
“That’s going pretty fast, isn’t it?”
“Some of us have found that we don’t have all the time we should like. We must go fast, or not at all.”
It was a platitude, slightly jumbled, but none the less true. Beth was looking up at me. There were things she might have noticed; that my skin was uncommonly smooth, and that I hadn’t even the faintest trace of whiskers.
She didn’t notice those things. She was looking into my eyes. I found myself enjoying this experience.
“Will you come in for a while?” she asked slowly.
I relaxed. Everything was all right, for the present. She was taking me at face value. She liked me and I liked her. The operation was proceeding smoothly.
We walked into a large room, pleasantly furnished. On a couch opposite the doorway three men sat talking. Two others stood before them. The moment we entered, the conversation stopped abruptly.
“Beth?” said a tall, graying man. He was already stuffing papers into a bag. “Back so soon?”
He wasn’t really listening for a reply and Beth didn’t make one. When he had the papers in the bag he locked it, then snapped it around his wrist and put the key in his pocket.
“We’ll continue this at the lab,” he said to the men. “I’ll be along in just a few minutes.” Then he came up to us.
“I see you’ve replaced your blond young man,” he smiled.
I knew all about this man who stood before me, with his stooped shoulders and keen eyes. Eldeth Copperd would have been surprised at the extent of my knowledge. I even knew why his government considered it wise to have several of its security agents near him at all times.
“Can’t you stay a minute and get acquainted with Marko?” Beth was saying. “He’s really a remarkable fellow. He can swim faster than you or I could run.”
“Literally? That would be quite fast.”
He looked at me with sudden interest and I was sorry the conversation had taken that turn. I didn’t want those keen eyes examining me too closely. They might note the absence of skin porosity.
Copperd didn’t notice, but I made a mental note to watch my step. And another not to go swimming again. Beth would be watching me, and if she were close enough she might see the webbing pop out between my fingers and toes when I got into the water.
“That’s my father,” Beth said after he and I had shaken hands and he had left. “Demands exactness. He’s a scientist, you know. A physicist.”
“Oh?” I said. As if I hadn’t known. “Is he always this busy?”
“Busier. If he isn’t working at the lab till all hours, he’s working at home in his study. Or having conferences. The only time I have him alone and to myself is Sunday evening.”
That was the information I had been hoping for.
Beth and I sat on the couch her father had vacated. We talked. I watched my words carefully; there were a good many commonplace things I knew nothing about. And I didn’t want any more questions about myself. Fortunately, conversation between a young man and a young woman is much the same everywhere. I didn’t have to pretend I was interested in Beth. She was unusually attractive. And she seemed to find me so.
We talked a bit, laughed a good deal, and when I got up to leave I knew that I had done well in the initial stage. But there was still a good deal to be done.
“May I see you tonight?” I asked. “Just a ‘coke date’.”
That was an expression I’d heard and had taken the trouble to make certain I understood. It seemed to be just the thing in the present case.
“I’d like that,” Beth said. “Pick me up about nine.”
Her choice of time could not have been more suitable. I was out of money. There was Mrs. Mara to be paid, and now the cost of the evening’s entertainment.
Until darkness fell I could do nothing about that. So I went back to my room and read old newspapers I had collected. I had discovered on my first day that those were the best sources of information. Those and the moving pictures.
For one who must learn a great deal about a people in a short time there is one infallible way: watch them in their favorite sports and relaxations. The moving pictures and the comic strips had been invaluable. In another few weeks I could have passed anywhere.
At eight o’clock it was growing dark. I changed my shirt, put on a sport coat and left the room. Five minutes later I was walking down a quiet street that was lined with fashionable homes.
After that it was merely a question of time. I went around the block, found that it was still too light, and went around again, this time slowly.
There was only one man on the street on my next time around. I sized him up quickly and decided that he was prosperous. He came on toward me. I managed to be looking the other way.
We bumped into each other and he fell. I said, “Sorry” and bent to help him up. My fingers touched his throat in the proper places and he went limp.
Within a matter of seconds I had his wallet out of his pocket and extracted several bills. When his eyes flickered again I was just raising him to his feet.
“All my fault,” I said contritely. “Are you all right?”
“Seem to be.” He was gruff, but that was all. He didn’t know that for a matter of seconds he had been unconscious.
At nine o’clock I came up the walk to the Copperd home. This time the security agent was leaning against a tree, lighting a cigarette. I made certain that he saw my face clearly.
One upstairs window showed a light, and the faint murmur of voices drifted down. That had to be Copperd’s room. Then a porch light flashed on and Beth came out of the door. She was wearing a white dress and the overhead light seemed to create a golden halo above her head.
I momentarily forgot about her father.
How much can a man learn in a few weeks? I had to be so very careful. Historical matters had to be avoided at all costs. Contemporary affairs were fine. Philosophy was best.
Philosophy is always the best. Good and evil are present everywhere. They can be discussed in the vaguest terms. We discussed many things in vague terms.
And yet there was a sense of intimacy which grew between us. It was hard for me to define, and after a while I gave up trying to discover what it was. I merely enjoyed it.
When I took her home I knew that it was not fear of the dark that made her walk so close to me. The movies had taught me a great deal about this matter of love play. Although some of it was highly exaggerated, it showed clearly enough the drives of these people, and some of their methods of acting them out.
We were standing on the porch when I kissed Beth. It was the first time I had ever pressed my lips to those of anyone else. My technique was good. I felt Beth respond, pressing harder against me.
My mission was on its way to completion. I felt a moment of triumph. And then suddenly, crazily, my mission was gone from my mind. I felt only a strange exhilaration that swept over me and made my heart pound and my head grow hot.
“What’s the matter, Marko?” Beth asked as I pulled away.
I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t try to figure it out. I had to get out of there and try to regain my equilibrium. On a mission like mine I had to keep my head.
“Shall I see you tomorrow?” I said.
“All the tomorrow’s you want,” Beth answered.
There was eagerness, and yet a note of regret. It was as though she instinctively knew that something was wrong. But my work had been well done; she was in too far, and I had cut her emotional line of retreat.
I saw Beth the next afternoon, and the next evening. My presence on the porch and in her home became such a common thing that the security agent hardly gave me a glance now.
Those few days passed by swiftly, and yet each hour in those days was long. I was very cautious; Beth and I kissed many times but I never allowed myself to be moved as on that first time.